Ishtar has been the butt of a lot of jokes and the definitive example of box office “flop” on many lists of “worst films ever made”. All undeserved and unfairly. Take for example that movie critics pretty much killed it before it even had a chance to premiere. An undercurrent of pre-release press literally destroyed the reputation and directorial future of Elaine May (a prime example of Hollywood male-domination where other male directors have had huge flops but gone on to make other fine pictures with a blank check). Ishtar is notorious in the “bomb” department only because a spiteful rumor mill instigated mainly by executives at a new studio that had inherited it, and had an agenda against both Hoffman and Beatty. There was trouble in the budget department fully out of the director’s and actor’s control that sent the dollars soaring (mainly due to shooting efforts in Morocco). In order to look like they were not at fault, executive producers backed out of post-production leaving the director and actors to flounder and it undermined the release by insinuating that the film was already a failure. There were other large issues, but inevitably Ishar was dead on release and critics were hostile without due cause. Supposedly, in hindsight, this was partially due to Beatty’s not-so-good relationship with the press after they gave him a work-over for Reds (he fought back and they retaliated through Ishtar). Previews actually went over well with audiences but after acrimonious writing by Siskel & Ebert and others, the box office release was dry and ruinous. If you are truly curious about the domino principle which made a quirky-funny homage to the old “Road Pictures” into an untouchable box office bomb, there are plenty of memoirs on the internet. However…
In reality, Ishtar is a nice adventure comedy that is both silly in the Beatles “Help!” vein, an obvious nod to the Hope and Crosby 40’s Road To… pictures, and uses some rather subtle devices that require an attentive mind (for instance the persona/role reversal of the usual Hoffman and Beatty characters, where Beatty is the more bumbling fool of the two and Hoffman is the more self-confident and “suave”, if one can call him that, partner). Charles Grodin is as far from a sharp and intellectual CIA agent as you can imagine, and the acclaimed French actress Isabelle Adjani plays sexuality way down in near imitation of an awkward boy throughout the film. The whole film is rampant with ironic twists, especially if you know the cast well. This was due to Elaine May’s script and her deft directorial hand which was then castigated by the Hollywood Press who made no attempt to disguise their intent to send the picture to movie hell. I found Roger Ebert’s original ’87 review of Ishtar on his website and read it for the first time since reading it in ’87. It seemed somehow vile and malignant that a critic with his impeccable talents would be just slightly forgiving; he has given a lot of “bad” movies a pass for at least some redeeming factors and I thought I would find one here, I didn’t. The deadpan he found in the film, he refused to open his eyes and realize that the intentional two-dimensional self-immolating characters are 80’s precursors to Shallow Hal.
The songs written by Paul Williams for the inept duo of Simon & Garfunkel wannabe’s are nothing short of hilarious, especially if you hold the lyrics up to comparison with songs from the classic rock and folk eras. Laugh out loud hilarious. The singing is intentionally as awful as you can imagine.
The vistas and cinematography for the film are beautiful and the Dolby/DTS sound are incredibly good in the Bluray version of the film. My only complaint with the Bluray is that given the nature of this film and its history, a nice documentary on the movie as an extra would have been appreciated by the film industry fans, perhaps a look back on the debacle with fresh eyes (if anyone has even attempted that). Leave it to say that at roughly $10 for the Bluray, you get the movie and only the movie in the highest quality picture and sound available currently with no frills.
I think history, from the look of many of these reviews giving Ishtar a total average of 4 Stars, is being much kinder to the film than what it suffered in the 80’s and 90’s. A new audience will possibly like this for what it was intended to be, without prejudice, and old cinema geeks who liked it as a quality “bad” picture will certainly get a kick out of it. Then there are the accolades from the industry talents. Quentin Tarantino loves it. Martin Scorsese has called it one of his favorite movies of all time. And even in today’s press, The New Yorker magazine has written Ishtar is a "wrongly maligned masterwork… There's a level of invention, a depth of reflection, and a tangle of emotions in 'Ishtar' which are reached by few films and few filmmakers."
I hope those of you who have avoided seeing this picture simply out of “reputation” might give it a chance. This release is promoted as The Director’s Cut version. It is actually two minutes shorter than the theatrical release, but no one, including me, has any idea what is missing. It has been too long since screening this in a theater, the last time I actually saw it, so if anyone has an eidetic memory and can answer the question, comments would be welcome!
- Actors: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Mark Ryan, Charles Grodin
- Directors: Elaine May
- Format: Import, PAL
- Language: English, Spanish, French
- Subtitles: French, English, German
- Region: Region 2 ( DVD formats.)
- Number of discs: 1
- Studio: Films Sans Frontiers
- Run Time: 103.00 minutes
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- ASIN: B002YZ7JNU