According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their weekly feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs. Our candidate for Week One: the notorious 1987 flop Ishtar, directed by Elaine May and starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty.
Ishtar is that worst kind of movie: the movie you expect to be unwatchable, but turns out to be merely mediocre. Upon its release in 1987, it quickly replaced Heaven’s Gate as the go-to synonym of choice for overblown box office disaster. It reportedly brought in only $12.7 million with a budget of $55 million, making it the most expensive comedy ever made at the time.
Watching the film, it’s difficult to tell where the money went. Although there are a few set pieces involving helicopters, most of the film takes place in interiors (is that a thing movie people say?) or in the desert … and how much can a permit to shoot in the desert cost? Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman raked in 5.5 million apiece for their performances, which was, apparently, a staggering amount at the time. It still seems pretty staggering, especially considering the fact that they are both woefully miscast.
Make no mistake about it, Ishtar is a bad film. Revisionists will tell you that it’s actually a dryly hilarious satire that was unfairly maligned due to its legendary budget woes and bitter critics. These revisionists are wrong. Is it dry? Yes. Is it hilarious? Not by a long shot. It is, however, not un-hilarious enough to qualify as a fun disaster. Most of the jokes — and there are lots and lots of jokes — drop out of the characters’ mouths and fall to the floor like leaden word balloons filled with a laughless soup (my coffee mug reads “World’s Greatest Simile Writer”).
Understanding the plot of Ishtar is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that is missing half its pieces and also made of sand. Beatty and Hoffman play struggling songwriters Lyle Rogers and Chuck “The Hawk” Clark, respectively. When I say struggling, I mean talentless. The songs by Paul Williams (a/k/a the Mad Munchkin) are done in Williams’ inimitable quasi-show tune style with lyrics that are not very far removed from successful musical theater. Elaine May accentuates the supposed awfulness of the songs by forcing Beatty and Hoffman to perform them in ways that no one would ever think to perform songs, ever. Although we watch them playing somewhat competent piano while writing the songs, for some bizarre reason, they switch to instruments they have never touched when performing the songs on stage. This decision is not explained, nor is it funny.
Fairly early in the film, Rogers and Clark somehow manage to sign with an agent who offers them a gig in Morocco. Flashback to unnecessarily long comic sequence illustrating how the two met. Thankfully, Carol Kane shows up during this sequence to distract us from the flatness of the script by being Carol Kane, who is always awesome. Although it’s a valiant effort, she unfortunately leaves the picture before the excruciatingly unfunny “Clark considers suicide” scene. It’s all downhill from there.
At the end of Act 1, the two decide that they will indeed go to Morocco to redeem themselves from their loserly lives. While waiting for their connection in Ishtar (a made-up country), Hoffman encounters the unbelievably gorgeous Isabelle Adjani. In what will become the film’s worst running joke, Hoffman thinks she’s a man because she’s wearing a turban and sunglasses. And neither Hoffman (nor Beatty, later … spoiler!) are able to tell the difference between boy voices and girl voices. Then she shows him her boob, and he realizes she’s a woman.
Please note: if you are planning on watching Ishtar, STOP THE MOVIE RIGHT HERE. This boob is the single best moment of the film. I have never before seen a film in which a boob upstages every other actor in the film. If May was smart, she would have renamed this film Isabelle Adjani’s Left Boob and turned the film into a 1 & 1/2 hour static shot of this scene. And she would have airbrushed Hoffman and his baked-bean teeth out of it so we could pretend we were watching another movie.
I forgot to mention that before we see Isabelle Adjani’s boob, her brother is an archeologist who finds an ancient map that says there are going to be two messengers who will come to Ishtar and save them from tyranny or something and that Isabelle Adjani has to take the map and give it to someone for some undisclosed purpose. And so she asks Dustin Hoffman for his passport, which he gives her (duh!) because he wants to see that boob again and really, who can blame him? In exchange, he takes her suitcase which supposedly has the ancient map inside it, because of course, that’s a great plan.
So then he meets a CIA agent played by Charles Grodin who enlists Hoffman as a CIA agent because that’s what the CIA does. And then they go to Morocco and perform a set that lights the night on fire at a hotel called Chez Casablanca. And Dylan Baker is in the background for a split second, which is the second best part of the movie.
After their set, Hoffman goes off to meet Grodin and Beatty hangs out at the hotel. While he’s trying to sleep, Isabelle Adjani breaks into the hotel and tries to steal the suitcase, but Beatty tackles her. He thinks she’s a boy, too, because like Hoffman, he’s never seen or heard a girl before. And then she lets him grab her boobs, which critics agree is May’s cheap way of getting out of showing them to us again (I looked it up). And then we suddenly realize that Warren Beatty has a southern accident.
Adjani tells Beatty he has to save Ishtar from the evil Emir by going to some bazaar and buying a blind camel from Mohammad, which apparently means something different than actually buying a blind camel, although I zoned out during that part. Then Max Headroom shows up as a CIA agent and a gunfight breaks out and Hoffman and Beatty get a real blind camel instead of a metaphorical blind camel (because they’re such knuckleheads!) and go into the desert where they end up shooting at helicopters with rocket launchers.
And somehow their agent ends up with the map and he makes the CIA pay to produce a live album of Rogers and Clark so they can get their map back, and we spend the last 10 minutes watching Beatty and Hoffman perform their awful music and then we end on a shot of their album cover in the window of a record store (look it up) and we know it’s a hit because it’s right next to Club Nouveau on the wall of hits. The end.
There are a million plot points and running gags that I didn’t get to in this description, most notably the unbearable wall of camel sound effects that runs on a constant loop through the final 45 minutes of the film. I never really understood the significance of the map, which, for a film that is centered around us caring about the significance of the map, probably points to an error in plot development on the part of the filmmakers. I think this was supposed to be a political satire, but it was difficult to tell what exactly was being satirized. You can’t just stock a movie with some bumbling CIA agents and call it a political satire, unless your point is how the CIA always tries to kill songwriters who come to the middle East to perform their songs and fall ass-backwards into the middle of a revolution. If that happens in real life all the time, then I stand corrected, and this is a delicious political satire.
Aside from the gaping plot holes (holes that are, in some scenes, filled in with totally obvious overdubs), the tone of the film felt way, way off. Hoffman has been great in comedic roles before … I mean, he was the Graduate, f’r chrissakes … but his humor comes from his ability to find the humanity in his characters. In this case, the character he’s inhabiting would not exist in the real world of humans, ever. And Beatty just clearly put in no effort. He took his 5.5 million and got the hell out of there, stopping only to toss Isabelle Adjani’s boob into his cocaine-filled grocery cart on the way out (what?).
Essentially, Beatty and Hoffman are playing the Dumb and Dumber characters, but with real pathos that we’re supposed to care about. If May had made the whole thing an over-the-top farce and cast, I don’t know, Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, it might have been a laugh riot. But instead, she tries to stuff a farce into a satire template, and what she ends up with is a senseless mush that is neither comically wacky nor charmingly bad — it’s just dull. What we’re left with is 90 minutes of noise redeemed only slightly by one glorious, glorious boob.
Oh, and also this:
On the Awkward Press scale of pizzas, I give Ishtar … 2 pizzas!
… but if May takes my advice and reworks it into Isabelle Adjani’s Left Boob … 6 pizzas!