Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We’re dusting off a Watch This tradition and looking back on unsung summer blockbusters—the big movies that opened to critical scorn or audience indifference during the warmer weeks, but are better than their reputations (or tepid box office) suggest.
It’s no easy task to describe Ishtar in a way that might get across, for someone who wasn’t around in 1987, just how boldly Elaine May’s fourth and very likely final feature courted disaster. Here’s a stab, though: Imagine a broad, cheerfully lowbrow big-budget comedy along the lines of Step Brothers or Talladega Nights, but instead of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale. That analogy isn’t perfect, in part because DiCaprio and Bale, while roughly comparable to ’80s Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in terms of popularity, power, and prestige—Beatty had won multiple Oscars for Reds half a dozen years earlier; Hoffman was about to win his second, for Rain Man—are both currently about five years younger than Beatty and Hoffman were at that time, 45-ish rather than 50. But if that pairing were announced, and the movie’s budget were highly publicized as being north of $100 million (adjusting for inflation from Ishtar’s $50 million), and reports were rampant of a troubled shoot involving bitter fights among the stars and director, and then the film opened and turned out to be deliberately, defiantly dumb… well, maybe you can comprehend Ishtar’s reputation as one of the biggest disasters of all time.
That reputation is undeserved, though. To be sure, Columbia Pictures was not happy with the grosses (though Ishtar barely dents the top 75 if you order this list of box-office bombs by “Estimated loss,” even with the inflation adjustment). And the movie itself definitely wavers in its comic conviction, to put it as charitably as possible. Sizable chunks of it are more loud than funny. Still, it’s recognizably May’s brainchild, which is to say that it’s just as often distinctively, admirably goofy. Her somewhat quixotic idea was to fashion an update of the Road To…movies that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby had made in the ’40s (and beyond), except with both leads as equally desperate losers. Beatty plays against type as truly terrible singer-songwriter Lyle Rogers, who has zero confidence with women; Hoffman is his new best friend and showbiz partner, Chuck Clarke, just as devoid of talent but slightly more oblivious to his shortcomings. Improbably booked to perform for American tourists in Morocco, the two men land in the fictional neighboring country of Ishtar and instantly become enmeshed in political intrigue involving a secret MacGuffin—sorry, secret map—that will apparently somehow destabilize the entire Middle East. Before long, both the local governments and the CIA want them dead, when all they ever wanted was to perform such deathless tunes as “Wardrobe Of Love” and “That A Lawn Mower Can Do All That.”
May hired the great Paul Williams to help pen Rogers & Clarke’s songbook, and every musical moment in Ishtar is pure gold—particularly the early montage that depicts their writing “process,” which sees them struggle to shape random blurted thoughts into coherent lyrics, or seize upon some stranger’s remark and try to turn it into a melody. Beatty and Hoffman commit themselves fully to their characters’ blithe idiocy, never winking at the audience as a reminder of their real-life stature; Beatty, in particular, underplays his dim-bulb role to perfection, generously letting Hoffman dominate most of their scenes together. Humor is subjective, of course, but it’s hard to imagine anyone failing to enjoy, for example, Chuck’s concerted but futile effort to correct Lyle’s repeated pronunciation of “schmuck” as “smuck.” Throw in Charles Grodin doing his choicest deadpan as a corrupt CIA agent who recruits Chuck, plus some first-rate sight gags built around a blind camel, and the notion that Ishtar completely fails to deliver becomes unsustainable.
Admittedly, it’s disappointing that May, who was then one of precious few working female filmmakers, gives the movie’s women virtually nothing to do—most notably Isabelle Adjani (Beatty’s real-life paramour at the time) as an ostensibly Middle Eastern femme fatale, but also Carol Kane and Tess Harper as the boys’ girlfriends back home. But, then, May had always demonstrated a rich understanding of male fecklessness, in films like The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey And Nicky. Ishtar was very much in keeping with her unique sensibility; the real disaster was its failure effectively ending her career as a director. Viewed without prejudice, it’s an uneven but sometimes hilarious exercise in sheer perversity, fueled by two superstars who were more than happy to look like cretins. As Rogers & Clarke note in “Dangerous Business,” however, honest and popular don’t go hand in hand. If you admit that you can play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock ’n’ roll band.