Ishtar (1987), or The Vicissitudes of Privilege

7 01 2009
Ow, did sand get in my eye or is it just this movie?

Ow, did sand get in my eye or is it just this movie?

In all my time as a cinemaholic (yes I’ve tried going to meetings, but I just can’t help myself) I’ve noticed a lot of interesting trends in moviegoers, little things here and there that mirror their personality on a whole. One of these trends is something I like to call “The Monkeybone Persuasion”. This occurs in the rare event of a box-office flop or a notoriously bad film from a major studio, wherein the moviegoer will hear about the film, in particular its awfulness, and will proceed to bad-mouth the movie to friends and family without having seen it. This is usually done for comedic effect, because nothing is funnier than rich people failing. It’s a fact. But could we all agree that to be fair and objective it would behoove those people to at least watch the movie once before browbeating it? Now when it comes to Ishtar, our film today, the first thing that comes to mind is financial failure. It went many millions of dollars over-budget and did not even make half of its money back in box office receipts. But how was the movie? Was it really that bad? Why did everyone “hate” it? Well…

The plot is insipid, sure enough. Two awful lounge singers, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman get caught up in espionage (somehow) during one of their gigs in Morocco. How this happens is very serendipitous, as were a lot of concept-driven 80’s comedies. But the gist is that there is a struggle going on behind the scenes between the emir of Ishtar and the CIA. It’s not very well thought-out.

I won’t continue to explain the plot. Nobody cares about the plot because nobody in the entire cast gives a shit about the plot, except for maybe Charles Grodin as the CIA agent who ekes out perhaps half a laugh in this otherwise embarrassing venture. This is a movie made by people who thought making a movie fun for them makes it fun for us. Surely we can see their joy on the screen, and the two leads here have often said that this was their favorite film of theirs. But what they failed to realize is that watching them frolic in the desert, having a good time, running up the budget on their own escapades doesn’t endear them to us. It pisses us off.

Failed comedies are the most painful bad films to watch because its not hard in real life to sell yourself as upset or angry or anything with a dramatic flair, but it is always hard to sell yourself as funny because not everyone is you and might not find what you say amusing. And I suppose nobody is like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, because nobody is laughing here. Intentionally.

Ah, and I say “intentionally” for a reason. For I did not come here to merely tell you the easily discernible bad points of this film. Because if you are a fan of unintentional, flat, horrible humor, well here is your oasis. This, friends, is a great movie to laugh at, and not with. The songs, written intentionally to be bad in this movie, ease you into a state of slight annoyance right from the get-go, arming you and your friends with all you need to demolish this movie. The performances, pumped full of self-assured smug, with get your blood boiling, and will have you shouting your own actually funny commentary at the screen. Watch this movie with your friends and get a laugh out of it.

So in the end you can’t judge it on just one scale. For actual entertainment value, I give Ishtar 2 mythical nations out of 10. For unintentional hilarity, however, I give Ishtar 7 Moroccan lounge singers out of 10.

See you tomorrow, where we discuss Joan Crawford’s The Women, another reader suggestion!

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2 responses

14 02 2009
J.

Ishtar is a fantastic political satire that was (commercially) destroyed from within the studio that produced it, by order of its new CEO. It lead the box office for 2 weeks, before the negative campaigning began. Anybody with taste for good humor and political insight and/or ties to the music business sees and appreciates the movie for its brilliance. A growing number of people openly admit that Ishtar undeservedly received negative publicity and criticism. Ishtar rules!

14 02 2009
cinematronica

I respect your opinion highly, J., and I can see some value to what they are trying to do in Ishtar, but I still feel very strongly that, like Hudson Hawk, people have tacked on meanings to this movie as time has gone on to explain that what these actors did perhaps had some deeper purpose. Watching it with the idea that maybe all the critics were wrong, however did no good for me. It still felt hollow for me, as if on this travelogue of a movie upon which they embarked the thrill of it all became more important than the actual plot or coherence. I will say, though, that you can definitely tell that they wanted to do something clever that says something about the insipidness of Cold-War foreign policy. I just don’t believe it translated at all. Once again, my opinion. Thanks a bunch, J.! I like to hear differing opinions. Hey, what did you think of Elaine May’s other political screenplay, Primary Colors?

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