Film: Ishtar
Critics moving in on the carcass of a budget-busting, misbegotten movie are not a pretty sight. Elaine May’s Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as surreally untalented singer-songwriters caught up in espionage and revolution in Morocco, was a goner long before it opened, what with its production woes, its difficult writer-director (who hasn’t made a film since), its escalating $55 million budget, and its two overpaid stars. Roger Ebert was among the kindest when he wrote, “a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy.”

I didn’t see it that way. In 1987 I was a second-string critic for the Chicago Reader, reviewing films like East German documentaries about black-lung disease. I rarely got to see mainstream fare. The year before, I was almost escorted from the theater for laughing nonstop and mirthlessly at The Three Amigos. I didn’t respond quite as pathologically to Ishtar (a remarkably similar movie in theme, spirit, and dumb songs), though Hoffman trying to teach Beatty how to say “schmuck” still cracks me up inordinately. But back then, if you showed me a blind camel, Charles Grodin as a CIA agent, and Isabelle Adjani’s nipple, then threw in a song titled “Wardrobe of Love,” I was about as happy as a man could be.

Watching it again 20 years later, I find it at least as funny as Walk Hard. And it also actually has a satirical edge, being sharper on the Middle East realpolitik of the day than, say, Charlie Wilson’s War. Beatty and Hoffman might have acted like idiots lost in the fictitious country of Ishtar in May’s movie, but they look like geniuses compared with those who gave us the reality of Iraq.

— Peter Keough


Fictional Character: Scrooge
Is there a more despised character in literature than Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge? His name itself has become a generic term for a miser — some uncharitable, unfeeling, unloved, greedy disbeliever in the spirit of giving others a helping hand. By the end of A Christmas Carol, of course, he “sees the light,” but the kindly old geezer he turns into — who buys a turkey for the Cratchit family — is not, of course, what we think of when we hear “Scrooge.”

But here’s the Scrooge you don’t know. A neglected, misunderstood child; crossed in love as a young man, he turns inward. He’s quite honest about his feelings: all he wants is to leave his memories behind, and not be bothered by people, but they won’t let him alone. His only salvation is his work, and he works hard; yet he’s besieged by fundraisers, and tortured — literally tortured — by having ghosts rub his face in his painful past. Imagine someone Jewish or Muslim or gay, an atheist, an intellectual, a music critic — anyone surrounded by and forced to submit to cultural norms he or she doesn’t like, or fit, coerced into celebrating someone else’s holiday.

I think Dickens half understands this. He gives Scrooge a reason to turn his back on frivolity. But he also stacks the deck against him, and makes him suffer terribly for what he can’t help but feel. Turns out he’s really pretty lovable underneath — what choice does he have? Scrooge’s best revenge, though, is that he’s the most compelling character in the book, one of the best characters in all of Dickens. Is anyone really interested in Bob Cratchit or, heaven help us, Tiny Tim? Whom do we really care about — or, yes, identify with — in the book, or any of its media incarnations? He’s Dickens’s unintentionally modern hero.

— Lloyd Schwartz

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