Telling the truth can be dangerous business. Honesty and popular don’t go hand in hand.
So say Rogers and Clarke in the infamous flop Ishtar. Well it may be dangerous business to say so, but count me in the film’s fan-club. The oft-derided 1987 film by Elaine May featuring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman recently popped up on Netflix Instant and is well worth a reevaluation.
Ishtar tells the story of two wannabe songwriters who struggle to find a gig because, frankly, they can’t sing or write worth a damn. Hell, they barely seem able to hit a drum on beat. They do eventually get a perceived big break as entertainment overseas in a Moroccan hotel. Once there, each one is separately dragged into an international affair of royalty, rebels and the CIA. Actions ensues, poorly. Comedy ensues as well, successfully.
There is no denying that Ishtar isn’t light on its feet once our dunce-y duo leaves America. One can reliably be turned off by the cumbersome discussions the movie has of revolution, with gunfights tumbling into tedium. This was a major critique of Elaine May’s movie upon release, with naysayers decrying its massive budget that has been reported as around $55 million, a price-tag that would be relatively high for a comedy now, let alone almost three decades ago.
Amidst this bloat there are plenty of good gags though. Beatty’s Rogers is a loveable fool, continually confused by everything around him. At one point Rogers is told to discreetly ask a man named Mohamad for a blind camel. It’s meant to be a sly bit of trickery that will lead Rogers to a man that understands the request as a code. Instead, Rogers sees a bunch of men selling camels and blithely shouts out for if there is a Mohamad here, which of course there are many. The elated grin on Beatty’s face when he discovers there’s a Mohamad in the area that quickly is a hoot. With a huge grin, Rogers states how lucky he was to find one on his first try.
Another bit featuring various undercover agents discussing who is or isn’t an equally undercover agent from another nation is funny too. A CIA agent runs down that the KGB are dressed like Arabs, the Arabs are dressed like Texans and the guys in the Hawaiian shirts are merely tourists.
Truly though, what makes Ishtar worth rewatching, even through the trouble-spots, is anything involving Rogers and Clarke’s musical career. You have the stupendous scene where Hoffman’s Clarke is playing a piano, telling a happy story about seeing the same elderly couple out for an anniversary dinner that he meets each year. Stating that he promised to write them a song in their previous encounter, Clarke begins a sweet sounding tune that descends into eeriness as he proclaims, “I’m leaving some love in my will. “ The couple’s face turns as Clarke continues on, “My life is nearly over, and time goes by so fast.” Eeeeeeeeeep.
The opening scene of our pair muttering and free-forming lyrics is genuinely great. Each with a wincing tenor, Rogers and Clarke try to figure out what telling the truth is; a difficult problem, a scary predicament or a bitter herb? Rogers is especially infatuated with using herb in the song. Clarke’s hilariously responds that Rogers should, “Forget herb! I never heard of a hit that heard the word herb in it.” Beatty and Hoffman are as loose and as goofy as they have ever been here, going big, but not so large that it’s frustrating.
Ishtar is never going to be considered a classic. It probably shouldn’t. It ought to be watched though and viewed as a worthwhile comedy, flaws and all.