Bad Movie Night: The Unsung Charms of ‘Ishtar’

Most of the works we spotlight here have earned the designation of "bad movies." Not this one.

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, on the 30th anniversary of its release, we look at the notorious 1987 megaflop Ishtar.

By most standards of general consensus, Ishtar would be classified as a bad movie. It was greeted with reviews of outright hostility; Roger Ebert called it “a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy,” while his cross-town, cross-aisle rival Gene Siskel announced, “the film fails at every level”; The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael compared it to “a comedy act by a depressed person who keeps losing track of what’s meant to be going on.” It arrived in theaters 30 years ago this week riding a tidal wave of poor press equaled, at that point, only by the likes of Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate, and with many of the same talking points: an out-of-control production, helmed by a perfectionist (in this case, writer/director Elaine May), beholden to the egos of its stars (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman), its ballooning budget (a reported $51 million) signifying everything that was wrong with studio filmmaking. When it couldn’t manage to gross 1/10 of its budget in that opening weekend, its goose was cooked; Columbia Pictures’ $35 million write-down was reportedly a factor in the studio’s sale by Coca-Cola, and May never directed another feature. It was nominated for three Razzies (winning one), its title became short-hand for “Hollywood fiasco,” and Columbia’s eventual owner Sony never even bothered to release it on DVD.

However, the trouble with consensus is it doesn’t allow for unpredictability and nuance, and plot twist: Ishtar isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s pretty damn good. Not great, mind you; some of it is clumsy, Beatty’s casting as the schlub to Hoffman’s ladies’ man is played with a bit too broad of a wink, and the third act’s stretch in the desert goes on too long (particularly a painfully miscalculated scene in which Hoffman tries to masquerade as an Arabic-speaking auctioneer). But it’s a film far better than its reputation, as those who have gone to the trouble of tracking down its tardy Blu-ray release a couple of years back discovered.

Beatty (who also produced) and Hoffman play “Rogers and Clark,” a pair of struggling, aging New York songwriters. Their tunes were written by May and the great Paul Williams, and they are hilariously bad – and they have no idea (“‘Wild Dangerous Business’ is as good as ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ any day of the week,” Hoffman insists). They sing them poorly in front of stunned audiences; cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shoots the performances with the unblinking flatness of a crime scene photo. Clad in their headbands, skinny ties, and sunglasses, they’re just a little too old for this, but they haven’t quite figured it out yet.

Yet somehow, their small-time agent (Jack Weston, very funny) gets them a booking, playing a small club in Morocco. When they hesitate, he won’t hear it: “A lot of acts would kill for a booking in North Africa!” So off they go, winding up stuck in the (fictional) nearby Ishtar, where they’re mistaken for two prophesized “messengers of God,” and find themselves wrapped up in a messy local civil war. May is a smart writer, and she crafts a sly political satire that goes in on the complexities and fluxes of the Reagan-era geopolitical landscape. Much of that comes via Charles Grodin as the resident CIA man; he’s so dry and hilarious, you can imagine watching a whole movie about his character, slithering through the Middle East and playing all sides (“The United States government will not be blackmailed! However, I see no difficulty meeting your timetable.”)

In fact, Ishtar is much more political than the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” pictures that were its inspiration (May even considered titling it Road to Ishtar, though the suits presumably assured her ‘80s moviegoers would have no idea what she was referencing). And she does emulate those films in the set-up — showbiz comedy in an exotic location, with two guys fighting over a pretty girl — but not really in execution. Beatty and Hoffman don’t have that duo’s ironic detachment or winking self-awareness; these two are closer to the earnestness of Laurel and Hardy (or the stupidity of Larry and Curly, especially when they’re briefly pitted on opposite sides of the conflict, two dim guys trying to outwit each other).

After all, it’s hard to imagine Hope and Crosby in Ishtar’s pivotal sequence on a New York building ledge, in which the film’s themes of delusion and disappointment come to a head as Hoffman contemplates suicide. “I’m a total failure,” he tells his pal. “I lived with my parents ’til I was 32. I’ve just dribbled my life away.”

“Hey, it takes a lotta nerve to have nothing at your age,” Beatty responds. “Most guys would be ashamed!”

It’s a terrific scene, though it’s not a conventional comic sequence – and if there’s one thing ‘80s comedies were, it’s conventional. In fairness to the critics of the era, several (including The New York TimesJanet Maslin and The Los Angeles TimesSheila Benson) pegged the film as imperfect but telling, tagging its droll wit and deft observations. A week after its disastrous release, Charles Champlin (also of the L.A. Times) wrote a fabulous post mortem of its reception, noting that the breathless reports of its out-of-control production, endless editing room tinkering, and delayed release (from a prestige spot in December of the previous year) marked it as a flop before anyone had seen it. “Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait, avid for signs of terminal weakness and early demise,” Champlin wrote. (Imagine if it were released into today’s version of film journalism. Good heavens.) And there’s also an argument to be made of some systemic sexism in those early reports; they didn’t put a lot of women at the helm of big, star-driven movies then (or now, frankly), and after it tanked, they did it even less. (May’s blacklisting was also unique to her sex; Michael Cimino directed four more movies in the 16 years after Heaven’s Gate.)

Or maybe it was simply (a cliché, I know, but here we go) ahead of its time. Of May’s four features, only The Heartbreak Kid (starring Ishtar’s Grodin) was a commercial hit; her spiky dialogue rhythms and complicated examinations of male/male dynamics aren’t always easy to get your arms around. Ishtar was a victim of bad buzz, but it also isn’t funny in the way that ‘80s comedies were expected to be funny — nor, really, in the style of the comedy teams May was so clearly influenced by. It’s closer to the character/situational cringe comedy of the past decade or so, though even that is too neat a box to stuff it into. It’s a film that resists categorization, staking a claim on a weird, absurdist territory of its own. For that, in the maddeningly generic landscape of ‘80s multiplexes, it was crucified. Now it’s celebrated. And rightfully so.

“Ishtar” is available to rent or buy on Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.