Ishtar (1987)

ishtar

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Songwriters travel to Morocco.

Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle (Warren Beatty) are losers-at-life that now in their middle-age years are convinced that they have talent as songwriters even though this opinion is shared by no one else. They manage to get themselves a talent agent (Jack Weston) who tells them that the only place he can get their act booked is at a club in Morocco. The two, desperate for any attention they can get, decide to take him up on the offer, but once they arrive they become swept up in international intrigue with the Emir of Ishtar and the CIA.

This film was a notorious flop in its day not only with its cost overruns, production delays and box office receipts, but with its behind-the-scenes discord between star Beatty and writer/director Elaine May. It seemed that critics and film goers alike considered it a bomb, but I came into this thing with an open mind. May has written some great scripts in the past and is known for her impeccably dry humor. I was convinced that in this day-and-age of broad comedy and over-the-top farces American audiences were simply not geared to pick up on the subtleties of the humor.

Unfortunately five minutes in it becomes painfully clear this thing is every bit as bad as its reputation states. The humor relies too heavily on the two main characters spending what seems like hours on end sitting around trying to come up with bad lyrics for their already dumb sounding songs and then singing them in an off-key, tone deaf kind of way. This may elicit a mild grin for a minute or so, but after spending the first twenty minutes on it, it gets really annoying. Even at the end as the two crawl on the desert floor they continue to work on these same lyrics, which by that time has become as dried up as the desert itself.

The insane, almost incoherent plotline is another issue. It’s like two diametrically different stories clashed precariously into one with only the thinnest of threads holding it together. What starts out as a sardonically amusing look at two middle-aged men chasing an elusive dream suddenly becomes the second reel of Raiders of the Lost Ark without warning. The wild array of loosely structured coincidences that the two go through as they reluctantly find themselves more and more inadvertently involved with the intrigue around them is so flimsily plotted and poorly thought out that it’s not even worth the effort to describe other than to say it makes little sense, is unexciting and most of all not funny.

The main characters are a turn off as well and not comically engaging as intended. The idea that two men hitting 50 would suddenly decide to chuck their relationships and jobs to chase after a songwriter career despite not getting any positive feedback from anyone else to convince them that they even possessed the ability to do it and which usually doesn’t pay well anyways seems weird and bordering on mental illness. Having the characters in their early 20’s and just starting out and willing to take any remote venue they could in order to get their first ‘big break’ would’ve worked better, or portrayed these middle-aged men as once being famous and now desperate for a comeback, or even has-been CIA agents caught up in one last case of intrigue. Just about any other scenario would’ve made more sense than the one that ultimately gets used.

Hoffman is a great actor, but his efforts here are wasted on the weak material. Beatty does well playing a dimwit and the scene where he ‘beats up’ on Adjani who he thinks is a boy is probably the only funny moment in the film. Isabelle Adjani though, who was dating Beatty at the time, is miscast in a role that doesn’t convey her talents and seems almost degrading especially the scene where she lifts up her dress at a crowded terminal and exposes her breasts in effort to prove to Hoffman that she is really a female.

This movie is in some way so amazingly bad that I was almost convinced that it was intentional and if that was the case then at least in that area it can be considered a success.

ishtar 2

ishtar 3

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Elaine May

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

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