Ishtar (1987)


(director/writer: Elaine May; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editors: Richard P. Cirincione/William Reynolds/Stephen A. Rotter; music: Bahjawa/Dave Grusin; cast: Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers), Dustin Hoffman (Chuck Clarke), Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel), Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison), Jack Weston (Marty Freed), Fuad Hageb (Abdul), Aharon Ipalé (Emir Yousef), J.C. Cutler (Omar), Carol Kane (Carol), Tess Harper (Willa); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Warren Beatty; Columbia Pictures; 1987)

“A failed attempt at doing a modern Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” picture.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A failed attempt at doing a modern Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” picture. This wannabe Road to Morocco pic never even crosses the George Washington Bridge to Jersey with its lame jokes. It had little chance of succeeding mainly because the leads, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, are miscast as talentless cabaret singer/songwriters dreaming of being the next Simon & Garfunkel. Both are unable to sing, and by having them sing inane songs off key throughout the film is something that never was as funny as intended. Director-writer Elaine May (“The Heartbreak Kid”) makes things even worse by casting Dustin as the smoothie know-it-all and Beatty as the dumb shlump when, if anything, those roles should have been reversed. The big-budget film (50 million dollars) remains as one of the all-time box office bombs. Though it might serve as a perverse delight for those who take pleasure in seeing a film that was not intended to be bad turn out so unforgivably bad. Its appeal is as a timeless oddity is almost assured with the advent of cable TV as a graveyard spot to catch it from time to time and see if it’s as bad as most critics think.

Desperate for a booking, their unenthusiastic agent Marty Freed (Jack Weston) books the struggling NYC songwriters, Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty), for a low paying gig in the Chez Casablanca in Morocco. But before they arrive there, they stopover in the mythical kingdom of Ishtar. Chuck is approached by left-wing radical Arab Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani) to give her his passport and luggage and switch jackets. Of course, he complies after only a few unimportant questions about the urgency of her request. Later at the US consulate office when reporting his missing passport he’s informed things are tense in the area, as the emir of Ishtar, backed by the US government, is worried about a leftist revolution. Enter CIA agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), who hires the broke and stranded Chuck as a CIA spy and has him fly to Marrakech to join his partner in his cabaret act. Shirra sneaks into the boys’ hotel room to recover her possessions, which she is sure contains a valuable map her murdered archeologist brother Omar found and is trying to pass onto her so that the CIA or emir don’t get it. The map could incite a mid-east rebellion from the masses and throw the area into chaos. Shirra hires Lyle to be her spy when she finds out Chuck went over to the enemy CIA. In the desert, the boys are leading around a blind camel and prove they can be just as unfunny as spies as they were as songwriter/singers.

There’s much blame to pass around for this turkey, but it starts with the tacky directing and inadequate script by the usually capable May and then there’s the cumbersome plot that never fully develops. But I don’t agree with the critics who called this one of the worst films ever made, it did have its few tolerable moments, some wonderful Technicolor shots and Grodin brings the right spirit to his satirical role as the resident CIA man. It’s just not one of those deliberately bad films (though Paul Williams’ songs were deliberately bad) that could be enjoyed for its failures. May was about as serious as a blind camel judging a beauty contest, but unfortunately she couldn’t make funny with her goofy espionage story.