ISHTAR (1987)

Written & Directed By: Elaine May
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Editor: Richard P. Girincione, Stephen A. Rotter & William Reynolds 

Cast: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper, Carol Kane, David Marguiles, Aharon Ipale, Herb Gardner, Fred Melamed, Matt Frewer, Alex Hyde White 

Two terrible lounge singers get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the C.I.A., the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying to overthrow his regime.


The history of this film is infamous. From all of Its problems behind the scenes and on the screen. That it was considered a failure. So much so that I am so shocked that no one has written a book about it.

This comes off as a major failure but an interesting one. Not a car crash Per se

As the film seeks to mash a bunch of genres and types together. It tries to be a comedy where you can hear the jokes in the writing but the delivery is stiff and kind of shows the efforts of the actors who are more famous for drama overall really trying. Yet failing 

It also is a kind of International road comedy. That is a kind of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope throwback. That then seems to become a loose espionage film. 

The first 26 minutes could have been cut shorter as they introduce the characters and feels like an indulgence for the film to set up the characters and their dilemmas. That feels more like a character comedy which writer-director Elaine May is more famous for.

After those initial scenes once we make it to Morocco where the film’s actual plot starts. That is when the film feels like at least it has started to move. Even as the film feels longer than it actually is 

As we can see the ideas on Display but they Don’t seem to connect. so that instead of seeing a production this almost comes off as cold reading or rehearsal 

This film could have been a forgettable 80’s comedy. The only problem is that with the big name talent on display it magnifies everything and makes the film more interesting in studying than actually looking for entertainment.

At times It’s painful and at other times it is amusing. As this film seems like it wants to rest on the laurels of Its star’s star power to carry it. As that sometimes works in bad comedies that stay passable on the likeability  of the star 

It might have even been salvageable or understandable if it starred two actors more known for comedy. Though with two stars who are known for perfectionism and trying an out-and-out comedy rather than any drama. Was a recipe for disaster. 

Especially when you have the stars kind of switch roles from the type of roles they usually play with Dustin Hoffman mroe being the ladies man and Warren Beatty the romantic dumb one who is mroe nerdy 

One can only imagine writer/director  Elaine May, more known for long takes, shooting a lot of footage, and putting films together in editing. Directing two actors known for being particular and revising scripts to their expectations and have been known to take over productions to fit their standards overall. Was quite the match 

The film seems like there might have been some Improv at times though also scripted more when it comes to the plot threads. This would also explain why some scenes feel monotonous In Length and dialogue. Like skits, they aren’t working 

It might have been funnier if the characters’ manipulation and distrust of one another we played up more. As we know the characters are dumb and in over their heads already. Though it becomes a buddy comedy that started off in that way 

Even though they distrust one another to a degree eventually it is so fast. That separation is never felt. As usually in buddy comedies, friction between the leads is part of the entertainment and watching them come back together only resonates with the depth of their friendship and loyalty.

This for s across as an example of the excess in the 1980s and how it affected Even those you counted on for quality eventual icons well into their careers to know better and why they might have become even more particular 

It seems like a typical studio comedy where the package was more important than the actual ingredients, story, or material. Not a particularly high concept In plot but talent definitely 

Unfortunately, it is also so far the last film Elaine May directed, and it’s a shame as most of her movies, even this are great in their own way, classics. This one more so for being an example or made an example of whereas the others were excellent quality. So that she showed a master of writing-directing in the comedy A NEW LEAF and drama MICKEY AND NICKY 

As Isabelle Adjabi and Charles Grodin come off more professional And one note. Though Adjani seems like she’d rather be anywhere else. Their roles and playing up what they know or are expected of them. As they come off more as Hollywood in this film and like they belong in the part of the film they are in. Whereas Hoffman and Beatty belong in the movie that is the first act but then become entangled in the rest where they stick out which seems like they were part of the plan. Though the mixture doesn’t work as you might want to see, the first act continued in one movie, and the later film is more plausible with different actors and characters coming Into it 

This just feels like a movie more for film fans or Hollywood and Tinseltown historians rather than the. Maybe a general audience unless fan completists if the main actors. It’s not as horrible. As it has been labeled. Trust me It’s not good, but it is fun in so bad it’s Good. It’s just not that engaging as it constantly feels like a production 

Even if the actors played the right roles it would not save the film but while it looks initially done to be funnier and a stretch for both of them. It ends up coming Off weak and would have fixed one of Its Many problems 

Mismatched as they play songwriters but they can’t sing well their characters nor the actors appear and while some of the songs are catchy in the writing scenes the performance is horrible. That originally there was going to be a soundtrack but that was scraped after the film bombed 

If the Morocco scenes weren’t so heavy and most of the film. The film could have just been a misfire. As if the characters stayed in New York as we marvel at their failures. Through the depth of their friendship. You can Understand what attracts the stars. As this was a bit of a comeback for each of them

Or was supposed to be. As both had been away from the big screen for five years and their previous films before this were considered classics these days 

Like dumb and dumber in the dessert international. Silly and fun and plays stupid but smarter than it comes across. As it is an epic failure that has so many mishandling yet good intentions and ideas. That is more purely comedic but some spoofs and like the decade excessive in many ways 

Then it all ends abruptly though it feels like it goes a long way just to get to the joke that is the ending while clearly showing Its inspiration so just like the Bing Crosby Bob hope films you have two iconic popular stars all heir for drama starring in a road to type comedy an expensive one that is all over the place 

Which makes the film a Hollywood artifact that matches the likes of Brian de Palma’s bonfire of the vanities with the film’s problems in the making, post-production, and marketing. With songs co-written by Paul Williams which might be why I when a weakness for them 

Grade: C

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