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Ishtar

Hot on the heels of 1987’s most hated movie, we now move on to the year’s biggest box-office flop. Indeed, with an estimated loss of over $83.1 million — adjusting for inflation — Ishtar is among the biggest and most notorious box office flops of all time.

An entire book could be written about the difficulties this movie had in production. The film was shot in Morocco during a particularly dangerous and unstable time in North African politics, and no one in the region had any idea how to shoot a movie on this scale. On top of that, this was a film starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, with Elaine May writing and directing (she never directed another film after this, by the way), all three of whom were expensive talents and notorious perfectionists. Between their careful attention to detail and their constant squabbling — between themselves and with others — the project went into post-production with 108 hours of film shot. They had gone through more than three times the amount of film that normally went into a comedy, and they did it with a budget that swelled to double its initial size.

Still, I think that all of this is beside the film’s crowning ignominy: As of this writing, Ishtar has not been released on DVD or Blu-Ray in Region 1. Take a moment to wrap your head around that one.

Taking the logical next step, I went to see if the film could be viewed online someplace. It turns out that the film was indeed up for viewing on YouTube… until it was taken down for copyright infringement. Torrenting would have been an option at this point, but I couldn’t even do that: There weren’t enough fans to seed the damned thing!

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’ve seen multiple web series dedicated to reviews of Z-grade shot-on-shitteo dreck that have never seen the inside of a VHS store, much less a DVD release. I’ve seen fanbases devoted to such godawful films as The Room, Troll 2, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. I’ve seen Manos: The Hands of Fate get a DVD release for no better reason than because it had a fan insane devoted enough to secure and restore an original 35 mm print. I’ve seen Hollywood studios publicly humiliate themselves with far more costly bombs that went on to get a DVD release anyway.

Yet here we have a movie with still-bankable stars, being crushed into obscurity by the very studio that spent millions to make it. And there isn’t a fanbase around to rally in an effort to save it. Fortunately, even the worst and most reviled of films can still find sanctuary in the hallowed halls of Movie Madness. With their help, I was able to secure a rental VHS (in the interest of fairness, I’ll refrain from judging the film’s visuals and sound design) to see for myself if this film really was bad enough to justify its reputation.

And sure enough, it’s pretty bad.

The film opens with an introduction to Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, respectively), a pair of songwriters who aspire to fame and fortune. The only problem is that they suck. They’re nothing more than a couple of old white guys who can’t write, can’t sing, and can’t dance. It’s admittedly a premise that might have worked, especially since Beatty and Hoffman show great potential for comedic interplay.

The only problem is that the film’s approach to “comedy” is anything but. The songs aren’t funny, they’re not charming, and they’re not even enjoyably bad. Rogers and Clarke’s attempts at music are so painful and so prominent in the film (they even play during the opening studio animations!) that I guarantee you’ll be annoyed with them by the end of the first act. Even when the film’s jokes have nothing to do with music, the execution is such that there isn’t a single laugh to be heard. Perhaps the best example comes when Clarke starts contemplating suicide. Seriously, that’s supposed to be a humorous scene.

It’s a damn shame that the first act turned out this way, because I could see so much potential here. The problem is ultimately one of casting: Hoffman and Beatty are both great actors, but they’re a terrible match for the material given to them. If Beatty and Hoffman had acted opposite each other in a drama, the results would assuredly have been amazing. If the humor had been more closely tailored to their respective talents and senses of humor, that might have been great as well. Alternatively, maybe the leads could have been cast with actors who had any shred of talent in singing and dancing. Hiring a more talented songwriter would have helped a great deal as well.

This movie was not unsalvageable. At least, not during the first act. When the story finally gets going in the second act, no power in Heaven, Earth, or Hollywood could have saved it.

At the half-hour mark, our two protagonists manage to get a gig in Morocco for some troops stationed there. Don’t ask me how. Unfortunately, they get a layover in the fictional neighboring country of Ishtar, just as a civil war breaks out in that country. Rogers and Clarke aren’t in Ishtar for five minutes before they cross paths with a wanted revolutionary (Shirra, played by Isabelle Adjani) attempting to flee the country. From there, the protagonists become embroiled in a three-way war between the Ishtar government, the dissenters, and the CIA.

I’m no historian, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the past two thousand years when holy war and political unrest in the Middle East would have made satisfying story material for a light musical comedy. Making it an American musical comedy seems especially tone-deaf, considering our long and bloody history of messing things up over there. It’s even more baffling with the knowledge that the cast and crew shot on location in Morocco while the Moroccan government was actively at war with Sahrawi freedom fighters. You’d think that May, Hoffman, and Beatty might have gotten a clue while waiting for the sets to be swept for land mines. No, really, that actually happened.

Moving on, it should come as no surprise that with so many nations and factions all clashing together for control of this country, there would be a few action scenes here and there. And they suck. The action is clumsily staged and presented without any energy or tension. Then again, when the plot to this screwball comedy is so unnecessarily convoluted, of course the battles between the various factions are going to be a huge mess.

When I say that the plot is convoluted, I mean that it’s a huge pile of junk. Even discounting all of the complicated political maneuverings and plans going on, the film’s story doesn’t make any sense at all. Take the map, for example. A centerpiece of all the conflict is an ancient map that was only recently discovered by archaeologists. We’re told that the map could be used for an instant and decisive victory in Ishtar, but we’re never told how. Don’t even bother asking who wrote it or why.

I can completely understand why Ishtar has gained its inglorious place in pop culture. On one hand, it’s certainly a bad movie. The humor isn’t funny, the music is delivered with no talent behind it, the plot is unnecessarily convoluted, the action flat sucks, and the choice to use Middle Eastern wars and politics as an anchor for a screwball comedy was impossibly stupid.

On the other hand, the movie isn’t what I’d call offensively bad. The film doesn’t beat you over the head with how inept it is, the way Leonard Part 6 does. Though the Middle Eastern setting is certainly tin-eared, for example, it’s still a far cry from being racist. The movie isn’t bad in a way that’s tasteless, campy, unintentionally hilarious, or otherwise interesting. It’s not even bad in an earnest or sincere way, since it’s patently obvious that no one on set is having a good time.

Basically put, the movie is boring. It’s a terribly dull waste of potential, and a 107-minute chore to sit through. I certainly won’t miss it.

3 Comments

  1. Comment by DH:

    Best movie ever.

  2. Comment by D:

    The music in the movie is supposed to be bad, they are supposed to be terrible singers/songwriters that suck. They believe in their act, that is part of the gag. I got the humor in the film and it isn’t lol funny but it’s certainly enough to make you think my god they are terrible.

    It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s entertaining and not a bad film. I respect your opinion but I don’t agree at all with your review.

  3. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    Believe me, I get that they’re supposed to be terrible. The problem is that the film had to present its terrible music in a way that doesn’t make the audience want to gouge out their eardrums. It had to make bad music funny.

    It’s a very difficult thing to take something that’s not entertaining, and present it in an entertaining way. This film failed at it. Terribly.

    For an example of the concept done right, just look at “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. There’s a musical number that’s unrelentingly hilarious in how over-the-top goofy it is, and it gets the point across that the play is godawful despite the actors’ best intentions to the contrary.

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