In an interview Neal Conan did with with Dustin Hoffman, the actor said, “Just about everyone I’ve ever met that makes a face when [Ishtar] is brought up has not seen it.” That does kind of sum up the biggest problem with Ishtar: its reputation. Because the truth is that it is a fun and silly movie that is quite sweet. Although I don’t much think of film in these terms, it’s a great “date movie.”
Almost no one I know has seen Ishtar. They bristle at the very idea of sitting down and watching it. But they have that idea because it simply became a thing to hate the film in the same way people claim to hate “Macarthur Park.” But at least in the case of “Macarthur Park,” you know that the people dismissing it have heard the song.
Gary Larson’s Ishtar Confession
Decades ago, Gary Larson drew a comic labeled “Hell’s Video Store,” where all the videos were Ishtar. In The Complete Far Side, he apologized for the cartoon. He noted that when he drew the comic, he hadn’t seen the film. Since then, he had watch the film and found it to be very funny.
This story works well as an analogy for the way that the movie has been treated. People don’t like it based on nothing other than that it became something of a standard joke that it was bad. What I’m saying is that people just haven’t seen the film. Consider that it grossed roughly $15 million when it was in the theaters. Movie theaters don’t make much money off films. That’s why the popcorn is so expensive. So given the average ticket price of $3.91 in 1987, that indicates that roughly 4 million people saw Ishtar. It did slightly better when released on VHS.
But the ultimate indication of just how unpopular this film is (that almost no one has seen) is that it is still not available on DVD in the US and it was released on Blu-ray only in 2013. People outside the US have done far better. I guess Ishtar isn’t a joke outside the United States.
The Ishtar Plot
Strangely, I always associate Ishtar with Spies Like Us. But the latter film came out eight years later, was a hit, has a higher rating among critics, and is a totally standard comedy with cardboard cutouts where characters would go. I think it’s just the buddy-comedy mixed with the CIA and camels. The plots are actually quite different.
Ishtar isn’t very dependent upon its plot. It is a character-driven comedy. Chuck (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle (Warren Beatty) are two middle aged men who really want to be songwriters. They are so clueless that they can’t even see the incompetence of the other one. Eventually, they end up losing their savings and wives/girl-friends. But luckily, they have a talent agent who is able to book them gigs in two places that they are likely to get killed. The two choose Morocco, but must land in the fictional northern country of Ishtar, which is on the verge of revolution.
Independently, Chuck starts working for the CIA (mostly because he wants the $150 per week they will pay him) and Lyle gets behind the cause of the revolutionaries because (1) they are right, and (2) his contact is the beautiful Shirra (Isabelle Adjani). Unfortunately for our two heroes, there is an ancient map that talks about two heroes that will lead the people to freedom. When the map is thought destroyed, all parties (Ishtar emir, CIA, and the revolutionaries) want to kill Chuck and Lyle.
Chuck and Lyle manage to find the map. Using it, their talent agent is able to bribe the CIA. Charles Grodin, as the CIA contact, notes, “It’s a disaster! The girl wants social reforms in Ishtar, which means we probably have to get rid of the emir. But that’s not the biggest problem. We’ve got to actually back an album with these guys and promote them worldwide!” At long last, a film that portrays the CIA realistically!
It’s unfortunate that I’ve only ever been able to watch Ishtar on VHS. As a result, I have a hard time talking about the quality of film as cinematic art. To me, it is generally too dark. And the shots are not terribly well chosen. But it was shot with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in Technicolor. So I suspect if I got it on Blu-ray, it would look a lot better.
Hoffman and Beatty would not be my first choices for these roles. Just the same, they were good. And they did a particularly good job of showing their characters’ emotional connection. In many ways, that’s the best part of the film: seeing these two clueless men who really do need each other. It’s like watching Waiting for Godot, but where the main characters have no doubt that Godot will show up and make their dreams come true. But just as for Vladimir and Estragon, Chuck and Lyle really just have each other. And it’s very sweet.
The film is written and directed by Elaine May. It’s competently directed. May is really a writer — one of the best comedy writers of the 20th century. And she directs in that way: she focuses on telling a story and making people laugh. So it isn’t a surprise that the film doesn’t look like it was made for cinephiles.
But as a result, there’s not even a hint of pretense, even with a number of brilliant moments. For example, at the end of the film, it cuts from our heroes in the desert to a close-up of the map, pulling back to see the talent agent on the phone with the CIA agent. It could have been done for its pure beauty, but it is such an effortless way to wrap up the plot that any possible complaint is eliminated.
If you haven’t seen Ishtar, you owe it to yourself to do so. And if you haven’t seen it in a while, you should revisit it. In addition to suffering from a studio that seems to have wanted to kill it, it also suffered from being ahead of its time. I think you’ll be surprised just how well this four decade old film holds up.