Directed by: Elaine May.
Written by: Elaine May.
Starring: Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers), Dustin Hoffman (Chuck Clarke), Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel), Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison), Jack Weston (Marty Freed), Tess Harper (Willa), Carol Kane (Carol), Aharon Ipalé (Emir Yousef), Fijad Hageb (Abdul).
There are some movies that an so synonymous with failure that they end up getting a lot of people in their corner – decades after their release, by a bunch of people who want to tell you that that movie that everyone agrees was horrible, is really a misunderstood masterpiece. One of those films is Elaine May’s Ishtar, from 1987 – which was a huge critical and commercial failure, and ended May’s directing career – she has never directed another feature since the film’s failure. It was called the Heaven’s Gate of comedy – but like Michael Cimino’s effort, there has been a recent movement to claim that Ishtar really isn’t that bad – it’s really a comic masterwork. I will agree on one thing – it is not as bad as Heaven’s Gate – which, despite what its supporters claim, really is the four hour, horrible, confusing, messy bore that critics and audiences rejected back in 1981. But that doesn’t mean Ishtar is actually a good movie. It isn’t. I don’t think it’s one of the worst films in history – it’s just your regular, run-of-the-mill bad comedy – that really isn’t that funny, and ends up being almost completely forgettable.
The opening scenes in Ishtar are the best. Two talentless songwriters, Rogers and Clarke (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) team up in New York and try to get a record deal. But they really are terrible and delusional. The scenes of Beatty and Hoffman performing their awful songs really are quite amusing, and the two talented actors wonderful as the two completely committed, completely clueless songwriters. The songs aren’t memorably awful – like say they are in this is Spinal Tap – but they are quite amusing. The pair do end up with an agent – who isn’t stupid of enough to think they have talent, but does think he can get them a low playing gig, playing for tourists in Morocco.
Once the film gets to Morocco, it really does go off the rails. They’ve barely arrived at the airport, when Clarke is approached by Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani, playing an Arab woman, because, sure why not? Nearly 30 years later Christopher Abbott can apparently do it, so fuck it, I guess) who really wants his passport, and for some reason, flashes her breast at him (yeah, I know, she does it to prove she’s a woman, but surely there was an easier way to prove that). That ends up drawing the attention of the CIA – led by Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), who enlist Clarke to help that track down the group Shirra is a part of. Remember, this is 1987, so Arabs weren’t necessarily evil in all Hollywood movies yet, and while the movie doesn’t shy away from what would become known as radical Islam, it pretty much paints everyone as clueless and violent as anyone. 20 years before the Coen brothers Burn After Reading, Ishtar portrays American intelligence agencies as a bunch of bumbling, violent fools, as stupid as two clueless songwriters.
The film was supposed to be a play on the Hope-Crosby Road to … movies of the 1940s, which is an odd kind of comedy for a writer-director like May to make. She had made her directing career up to this point making comedies in the so painfully real and awkward they’re funny vein. The film she made before this – Mikey & Nicky – isn’t really even a comedy, even though it has all the pain and awkwardness of her two previous films. Ishtar is as broad as those films were specific – and it’s a mode that doesn’t suit May well. She has always had physical comedy in her movies – most noticeably in A New Leaf – but running gags involving a blind camel ends up becoming incredibly drawn out and painful (especially since it wasn’t really funny the first time).
A bigger problem is that Beatty and Hoffman don’t seem overly comfortable playing idiots. Unlike, say George Clooney, who is normally an actor who exudes intelligence, but is able to be gloriously clueless in Coen brothers movies, these two just don’t scan as nitwits. Both Beatty and Hoffman did the film because of loyalty to May – she wrote Beatty’s directorial debut, Heaven Can Wait, and did uncredited re-writes on Beatty’s Reds and the Hoffman starring Tootsie. Beatty has said he wanted to give May the gift of this movie – she hadn’t directed in a decade, and Beatty wanted to use his clout to get her another directing gig. As was normal for both Beatty and May however, they clashed on set – and May almost walked off at several points – Beatty didn’t push it back, because he didn’t want to direct the film himself.
May had fights with the studio on A New Leaf and Mikey & Nicky as well – although unfortunately unlike on those two films, those conflicts all end up on screen this time out. It’s unfortunate that Ishtar ended up being branded as such a colossal failure, because May ended up in “movie jail” – and she’s never really got out. Yes, she wrote the screenplays for Mike Nichols the Birdcage and Primary Colors a decade later, but she has not directed another feature since. That’s too bad, because three out of her four directed films are actually very good. Ishtar isn’t as bad as its reputation – it’s just a run of the mill misfire. Every director has them – it’s just that in May’s case, it ended her directing career with a whimper, instead of a bang. She deserved another shot.