Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
Download at i-tunes Download on iTunes
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper, Carol Kane, Aharon Ipalé, Fijad Hageb, David Margulies, Rose Arrick, Julie Garfield, Cristine Rose
Written by: Elaine May
Directed by: Elaine May
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 107
Date: 05/15/1987

Ishtar (1987)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Sing Break

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Movie critics love the idea of being archeologists, becoming the first one to discover or appreciate a certain movie in certain ways. Elaine May's famous flop Ishtar has long been one of the golden prizes for anyone who would come forward to defend it. Alas, now that Ishtar has been released on Blu-ray some 26 years after its initial theatrical run, I have to throw up my hands. This is, very simply, not a good movie.

Elaine May began as a comedy performer with her partner Mike Nichols. As "Nichols and May," their comedy records, club appearances, and television appearances were very successful. When the duo split, May started off as a playwright and a screenwriter, whereas Nicholas began directing (far less interestingly, it could be argued, than his partner), and has continued, unhindered, ever since.

A decade after the split, May also began directing. She made three great films, A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1973), and Mikey and Nicky (1977), none of which received as much attention as Nichols' films did. May's staunchest defender, the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, pointed out that all of these movies are about betrayals between two partners, and that the title Mikey and Nicky sounded like "Mike Nichols."

It took another decade for her to make Ishtar, and the film was a huge failure, returning about $15 million on a $55 million budget. Many factors were blamed for this, including bickering between the stars and crew, and general cost overruns during production. It doesn't matter, really. What matters is the final product.

Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) are a pair of inept songwriters who fancy themselves the next Simon & Garfunkel. Nearly out of money, they accept a job performing in a (fictitious) part of North Africa. Arriving at the airport, Chuck agrees to help out a beautiful, desperate woman (Isabelle Adjani), who wishes to use some kind of secret map to oppose the government of Ishtar. The CIA becomes involved as well, represented by agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin).

Our heroes wind up stranded in the desert with a blind camel, being shot at by planes. And... that's about it. There's just not much here. Even the betrayal theme is gone. Both Hoffman and Beatty had done comedy before (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait, etc.), but watching them in this, you might think they were rank amateurs, and totally inept at anything like timing or execution of jokes. Their characters never seem to come together, either. Their particular relationship and their personalities are never very clear. Why are they friends, exactly?

I've always wondered whether it was the effect of watching these guys writing and performing bad songs, badly, that cast a pall over the rest of the film, and it does to a certain extent, but also, the film just happens to have its own pall, regardless of the songs. (The talented Paul Williams gets credit for writing the "bad" songs, though, honestly, they're not quite as dead-on funny as the "bad" songs in This Is Spinal Tap.)

Yet Ishtar is far from the worst movie ever made, and indeed, I've seen a dozen movies in 2013 alone that are far worse. Grodin is one high point, delivering one of his brilliantly funny deadpan performances (he was also the star of The Heartbreak Kid). The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is another highlight; he hardly shot anything in his career that wasn't truly beautiful.

Some have opined that the general stupidity of these Americans in the Middle East is some kind of parody, but I was unable to see this. In general, I had been hoping that, armed with my new knowledge of May, I could help defend this much-maligned pillar of infamy. Alas, there's not much I can do. Sorry, Ms. May.

What isn't fair is that this movie ended May's directing career. Many male directors have lost just as much, if not more, money on various flops, and their careers have never even slowed down. After this, May went on to write screenplays for two of Nichols' movies, The Birdcage and Primary Colors, and then gave a wonderful, hilarious performance in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks. She is one of the greats, and even the greats have their occasional missteps.

Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the good-quality Blu-ray. I would have given a pinky finger for an Elaine May commentary track, but there is none, and no other extras aside from some trailers for new movies.

Hulu Castle Rock SVOD