Ishtar (1987)
March 18, 2024 12:56 PM - Subscribe

Two terrible lounge singers get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the CIA, the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying to overthrow his regime.

Booked in Marrakech, two New York singers (Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman) stop in Ishtar, meet a beautiful rebel (Isabelle Adjani) and alarm the CIA.

Sheila Benson: May fills the edges of her screen with quirky filigree work while the plot, such as it is, unfolds center stage. At the American Embassy in Ishtar, an overwrought Beatty pounds the wall for emphasis, and his fist goes right through the cardboard-thin partition. The bureaucratic panic this creates becomes a kind of anthill counterpoint to the action.

Then there’s the blind camel, who begins as a secret password and goes on to be the biggest scene-stealer since Baby Leroy. It might be argued that this witty detailing is sometimes at the expense of the big picture. Agreed. “Lawrence of Arabia” this is not. It’s not even an epic spoof, “Lawrence of Astoria.”

It’s merely an entirely intelligent, drolly funny comedy with something on its mind. It has two exquisitely detailed characters, three lapidary performances, the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the costumes of Anthony Powell and the damnedest, most memorably awful songs that Paul Williams and/or Elaine May could devise. And from where I sit, that’s amore.

Ciara Moloney: But I don’t want to reduce Ishtar to its songs. I laughed the whole way through it. Ishtar is a masterpiece of secretly-smart stupid comedy. Lyle and Chuck may be in way over their heads, but the film itself always knows what it’s doing. On their arrival in Ishtar, Chuck gives his passport to a mysterious woman (Isabelle Adjani), who turns out to be Shirra Assel, a leftist guerrilla in the movement to overthrow Ishtar’s despotic Emir. Chuck ends up becoming a mole for the CIA at the same time as Lyle is recruited by Shirra to help the guerrilla fighters, but they’re both too stupid to really have any grasp of what’s going on. There’s a great scene where they attempt to argue for “their side” by repeating talking points they’ve heard, but obviously don’t understand.

It’s a satire about American foreign policy, particularly in the Reagan era, but, like Chris Morris’s brilliant terrorist comedy Four Lions, it laser-focuses on getting its laughs of the characters and their situation. Shirra tells Lyle to ask Muhammad to buy a blind camel as a code word, but he actually buys a blind camel, and the reaction of the salesmen is gold. And then he has to cart around a blind camel for the rest of the movie. It never stops being funny, because it retreats into the background until you suddenly remember that holy shit, the blind camel is still there, and you laugh about it all over again.

Jenna Ipcar: Ishtar is laugh out loud funny. Its self-deprecating awareness is just a delight to watch. I also love how it heightens its already ridiculous premise by doubling down hard on the follow-through; that it ends with a bizarre big-budget shoot out is so wildly inappropriate that it comes full circle to hilarious. Ishtar would have felt completely at home had it come out in the early 2000s heyday of awkward humor. It’s more Flight of the Conchords or The Office than, say, its more contemporary Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Big-type comedies. The closest I can find in the decade might be This Is Spinal Tap, which similarly didn’t do so hot upon release (but notably, and rightfully, wasn’t a ripped-to-shreds career-ender the way Ishtar was for May).

At its heart, Ishtar is a buddy comedy about two guys who have nothing but a singular dream and each other. Abandoned by their girlfriends, dismissed by their peers, they rely heavily on their mutual encouragement and trust just to get through the day. Honestly, they have more problems when they’re trying to keep secrets from each other than when they both come together to shoot rockets at helicopters. It’s the wholesome relationship drama at its center that makes the film so funny. A tried and true comedic formula, May cites Hope and Crosby’s On The Road… movies as a direct influence, throws in a Martin and Lewis callback with Chuck and Larry singing “That's Amore,” and there’s even a sprinkle of some Matthau and Lemmon Odd Couple vibes. Ishtar is a certified bromance between two losers.

posted by Carillon (17 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd never seen this before, but it is really funny. I have been humming 'Dangerous Business' to myself now for days since I've seen it. I agree with most reviews I read that have the New York section as the high point and the desert stuff doesn't quite hit that, but man, when it works it works. I loved how funny this is, and of course, because Elaine May is hilarious, but with the reputation I didn't expect to love it as much as I did.
posted by Carillon at 12:59 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

So, I LIKED this movie when I saw it. I was a teenager and it was goofy and silly, and that suited me just fine. Then when it got canned I kept trying to quietly defend it as a matter-of-taste thing. But now Elaine May is getting some after-the-fact love and I feel vindicated.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:11 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I remember when this came out, but I didn't see it. I do remember it being absolutely slaughtered by the critics including one review titled "Ishtar Ishtarible." I'll have to add it to my ever increasing wathlist.
posted by miss-lapin at 1:20 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

But now Elaine May is getting some after-the-fact love and I feel vindicated.

Elaine May is still alive and is attached to direct a new movie! Will it happen? Who knows, but I wouldn't bet against her.

The Elaine May lovefest got me checking our her directing filmography lately--I watched this over the weekend and was floored by it. It's so good. It's so smart. Just pantses the entire Reagan administration over and over and over.

The way May was treated is, frankly, inexcusable.
posted by rhymedirective at 1:41 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]

I remember when this came out, but I didn't see it. I do remember it being absolutely slaughtered by the critics

Absolutely same (including that I didn't see it, so this is not a comment on the quality, just on what the popular narrative of the quality was at the time). Like, I remember "Ishtar" and "Howard the Duck" being often used in the same breath when people discussed worst ever movies.
posted by solotoro at 2:40 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]

Oh, is this movie getting reevaluated finally? It deserves it. It's not some lost masterpiece, but neither is it the horrific, disastrous shitstorm of awfulness that it somehow gained a reputation for being. It's harmless and funny and a pretty on point satire of American foreign adventurism.
posted by Naberius at 5:37 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

I watched this tonight and I agree it's not a lost masterpiece but it's not nearly as a bad as its reputation indicates. It's not great but it's fun enough (I did laugh at several parts). Hoffman and Beatty are having fun. The script is a little unfocused in what it's trying to say but it's still charming enough.

It's a failure but a well-meaning one. I admire its goofball spirit. I don't think I need to watch this again but I enjoyed it. I was entertained and that's all I wanted.

I love Elaine May, though, and I appreciate this as part of her body of work.
posted by edencosmic at 6:27 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

I saw that Mubi just added this, and I'm excited to watch it. I remember seeing part of it some Saturday afternoon on commercial TV in the early '90s, long after it had become a punchline and been forgotten, and I settled in expecting an Ed Wood movie, and I was shocked to find myself laughing at it, a lot. I kinda lost the plot when they got to the desert and I went on with my day, but I have long suspected it was unfairly judged.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:29 PM on March 18

I'm curious if audiences of the time simply had different expectations from a movie with such big stars attached. I remember when it came out, and my own reaction before really knowing about what a flop it was supposed to be, was: "Beatty and Hoffman in a comedy? I'll pass..." When I finally got around to seeing it, my reaction was more meh. I think they do a good job, but it's difficult to play a sincere dork if the audience is expecting a heavy experience. May was good doing cringy comedy that isn't overly clown-y, probably well ahead of her time. It feels like Ishtar wants to follow that path, but is getting a lot of pressure to do buffoonery.

It is oddly demanding for such a goofy comedy, and I think the stars brought enough baggage, that it just doesn't work as well as it should. I wonder if it might have been regarded better if it had played more like a Christopher Guest movie, with a cast of recognizable, but non superstar, faces.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:58 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Like, I remember "Ishtar" and "Howard the Duck" being often used in the same breath when people discussed worst ever movies.

But, yeah, Howard the Duck was pretty bad.
posted by Naberius at 6:06 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]

With critics, I find, a Hollywood release will come out over the course of the year that they all seem to jump on. There can be a lot of different reasons for that - more often than not it is simply because the movie is terrible. However there are times it feels like it is to make a point about an issue with the industry more than the film itself. I feel like that's the issue here with Ishtar. It is not a great film (it isn't A New Leaf) but it is hardly on the scale of worst ever (why should you trust me? I recently watched a film made by an optometrist to warn the public about the concerns of Communism, timber frame construction and poor zoning rules so I know from bad).
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:45 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing this in the theaters because my mom was so excited to see Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman and maybe some of that shiny veneer of Romancing the Stone exoticism and adventure. (Reminds me I should go watch Jewel of the Nile again and see if it is as truly meh as my brain says)

I went along, because "hey movie, on the big screen! Ice cold air conditioning in florida! Woo!" and I just remember for 13 year old me sitting in the theater not getting it at all. My mom on the other hand seemed to enjoy it, but not enthusiastically. Haven't seen it since.
posted by drewbage1847 at 11:18 AM on March 19

2019, Slate floats a theory about sabotage: Ishtar Didn’t Die a Natural Death. Elaine May’s film Ishtar came to theaters dead on arrival in the summer of 1987. Advance publicity had killed any potential for it to succeed. Before audiences ever got a chance to see it, they had read newspaper and magazine articles filled with anonymously sourced anecdotes about May’s eccentricities on set and the film’s cost overrun. So it was little wonder that the movie bombed and almost immediately became a sitcom punchline. Guy McElwaine, the head of Columbia Pictures who had greenlit Ishtar, was fired in the middle of production. His replacement was a British producer named David Puttnam—a choice that immediately raised alarms for the Ishtar team...
(Puttnam had history with Beatty and Hoffman, and "was a vocal critic of movies with inflated budgets—like Ishtar.")

2020, IndieWire: ‘Ishtar’: How Hollywood Decided That One Box-Office Flop Spoke for All Female Directors. Thirty-three years later, it's easy to see that Hollywood applied a double standard to the brilliant Elaine May. [...]

“If all of the people who hate ‘Ishtar‘ had seen it,” Elaine May famously said, “I would be a rich woman today.”
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:38 PM on March 19 [10 favorites]

I've seen this countless times but not in at least 20 years. My friends and I had all the songs memorized and I'm certain I know them still. Was very disappointed the soundtrack never came out.

To this day, I cannot meet a Carol without my brain singing, "She changed her name... to Carol!" I also say, "I look like a truck" when wearing something I don't like, and instantly say, "Cute is for baby ducks" when someone says something is cute.

Not surprised it flopped. Whoever heard of a hit with the word herb in it?
posted by dobbs at 10:59 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]

Gary Larson wrote a Far Side comic about this movie that he later apologised for.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 9:39 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

I admit to it being decades since I've seen this, but a lot of the excerpts are a bit too revisionist to me. I saw this in the theater; it was early in its release and had a decent size crowd, but our reaction is really an argument against it being "laugh out loud" funny. It was crickets.

Consensus of my gang leaving the theater is that it had moments that were a bit funny but they were lost in an overall mess that didn't really commit. Benson's review line the space between laughs--or appreciative chortles, which is closer to “Ishtar’s” consistent level getting longer as the movie goes on is about the most favorable statement I could agree with.

It's 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and 50% on metacritic, so average/mixed/poor reviews, which seems right to me. It's not the universal disgust that I think people project back on it, so in that sense it's reputation is unfair. But it was a hugely expensive mediocrity that was a box office flop.

Before audiences ever got a chance to see it, they had read newspaper and magazine articles filled with anonymously sourced anecdotes about May’s eccentricities on set and the film’s cost overrun.

This sort of thing is a common fallacy of professional film critics, who get immersed in advanced buzz. Most audience members didn't read anything at all about how May acted on set; heck, most were seeing a Beatty/Hoffman movie and probably couldn't name the director. It reminds me of Gilliam's Munchausen, which came out a couple years later (and massively overbudget): The studio thought they'd need to overcome all the negative press it had gathered, and upon talking to audiences fond out the main problem was no one had heard of it.

You could argue that the bad press influenced critics, and mediocre reviews dampened the audience reaction. Maybe; we knew about the meh reaction it was getting when we saw it. But that's a stretch. The movie still got massive advertising budget and a wide release, but neither audiences nor critics warmed to it.
posted by mark k at 11:39 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure how it played when it came out, but as someone who just watched it, is it pretty laugh out loud funny. The score thing is always tough, as what do different percentages actually mean, but I feel pretty comfortable saying it is 'better' than the 40 or 50 percent that it has.
posted by Carillon at 12:39 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

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