I think it’s fair to say that Ishtar is a film with a bit of a reputation. One need look no further than the scathing reviews it’s received over the years to see that. A quick sampling from Rotten Tomatoes tells us that it’s “the model of awful comedies” and that it “live[s] up to the hype of its badness.” Even Roger Ebert himself gave it half a star. So it was with a great amount of trepidation that I approached what many have made out to be one of the worst films of all time, but does it really deserve all the hate it’s been getting since its release? One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t take that many minutes for you to reach that point of decision.
Before getting any further, let’s take a look at the narrative. Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) are two songwriters trying to make it big in the music world. They have dreams of being the next Simon & Garfunkel, but the problem is they don’t realize how bad a duo they are. Despite this, they manage to find an agent who gets them a booking in Morocco, but this requires a stopover in the country of Ishtar first. They quickly become entangled with a young woman, Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), a freedom fighter trying to recover a map that could bring turmoil to the country, and a CIA agent (Charles Grodin), who wants to recruit Chuck as an operative. It doesn’t take long for misconceptions to arise as these two songsters try to bungle their way through the sudden predicaments they find themselves in.
You’ve probably already noticed what the first major problem is: These two stories have absolutely nothing to do with each other and there’s no reason that they should have been combined. On the one hand, the film starts off being about two struggling musicians who are trying to make it big. That’s one movie right there, but apparently the writer (Elaine May), who also happened to direct, was unhappy with that being the primary narrative, so she decided to throw these two in the middle of a political plot in a foreign country. If she needed an excuse to get them there, there were certainly much easier ways that didn’t involve setting up an additional narrative, only to end up discarding it for another.
The only reason she seems to have given these characters the background that she does was so that they could include multiple cheesy musical numbers throughout the film. Granted, these are supposed to be really bad songs (you could argue they fit in with the rest of the décor), but they still seem like a complete waste of time. It is interesting to note however that the songs were co-written by none other than Paul Williams, of Phantom of the Paradise fame, so at the very least you know there was some talent behind them.
Ishtar basically boils down to a failed attempt at a road movie along the lines of the old Bing Crosby and Bob Hope variety where the duo would always get caught up in some escapade in a foreign land. However, if that’s what May was going for, she forgot the entertainment, the fun characters, and perhaps above all, the comedy. What passes for comedy in Ishtar is at times bad enough to make you shake your head, while at others it’s simply cringe-worthy.
No scene meets this last description better than one in the latter half of the movie that involves Hoffman trying to pretend that he’s an auctioneer who is able to speak Arabic (don’t even ask…). While Hoffman stands there on the screen making a complete fool of himself through shouting out gibberish, you’ll probably be too busy thinking back through the film as you wonder what it was that attracted such talent as Hoffman and Beatty to the script. Hoffman already had his first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer and had recently been in the big hit Tootsie, while Beatty had already had great success with his epic Reds, for which he won the Best Director Oscar of 1981 (with an acting nomination to boot). I can’t imagine these two big stars were so hard up for work that they grabbed at so obvious a disaster as this.
Whatever the case was, at least they managed to keep their careers afloat afterwards. Hoffman went on to win another Oscar (1987’s Rain Man), while Beatty moved on to receive three more Oscars nods (Best Picture and Actor for Bugsy and Best Original Screenplay for Bulworth). Even May recovered, eventually earning her second Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (1998’s Primary Colors).
Perhaps the tales are a little exaggerated. This is very far from the worst film I’ve ever seen, but after finally seeing it, I can say for certain that there is credence in a lot of the negativity put towards it. It should have been pretty clear to everyone involved, and perhaps it was, that the film was not turning out well. What’s even more shocking is that the film apparently cost $51 million to make. Where all that money ended up will simply have to remain a great cinematic mystery.
With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the disc itself. The film is presented in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that looks really good for being 26 years old. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is sharp and clear for the most part, though there are a few times throughout the film where it was a little on the soft side, but it’s nothing that turning up the volume a little more won’t fix. Overall, the film has been given a great cleanup in both departments.
As for special features, it comes with nothing. I don’t mean nothing as in extras that aren’t worth taking a look at or merely a theatrical trailer, I mean literally nothing. Here was a great opportunity to hear from the cast and crew about what they thought of the film then and now, as well as what they thought about working on it. It was also a perfect opportunity to get an answer to my question from earlier about what it was that drew Hoffman and Beatty to these roles. Perhaps they were just too embarrassed to revisit it, though I certainly wish they would have.
Normally I rate a Blu-Ray by a combination of the film and special features, but with the film being the disaster that it is and there being no special features to speak of, there’s not much going in the way of positives for this release. Ishtar is quite the fascinating anomaly. There have been several big-budget films with big stars at the forefront that have been box office bombs (such as what happened with The Lone Ranger recently), but this film tends to be the one that stands out in cinematic circles as being one of the particular worst. If you should decide to examine it for yourself one of these days, just let it be known that you have been warned.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.