Movie Review: Ishtar

And as long as we’re talking about wacky thoughts, DKC and I watched the infamous Ishtar last night. Well known for being one of the biggest movie flops of all time, I actually didn’t think it was all bad. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and Charles Grodin, and tells the story of two clueless wannabe singer/songwriters (Hoffman and Beatty) who travel to Morocco to get their big breakthrough. There, they become enmeshed in an outlandish CIA plot that involves secret agents, assassins and blind camels. Yeah. Honestly, if it had starred say . . . Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, I think this film would never have received the ignominy it has today. As it was, it’s sort of like the filmic equivalent of everyone hearing Dostoevsky was going to come out with a slapstick comedy–there’s this big rush of anticipation. What in the world will this do to the slapstick genre? Surely someone with as much genius as Dostoevsky will blow our minds and make us see slapstick from a whole new angle. And all that turns up is . . . a fairly decent slapstick comedy. It’s the disappointment that burns.

The film was fun, I’ll give it that. Certainly wacky. And it had intentionally bad music by Paul Williams (of Bugsy Malone and Muppet Movie fame). If you haven’t seen it, give it a whirl. Sure, I only give it about two and a half stars, but I think this might be one of those movies that gets better with repeat viewings. Preferably late at night with a large group of punchy people. Anyone else out there seen it?

7 thoughts on “Movie Review: Ishtar”

  1. from an old guy who’s Brooklyn-bred . . .
    I enjoyed the movie when it came out and rented it for annual repeat viewings in the days of video stores. When that availability disappeared, I was able to purchase a European DVD version that I couldn’t play ’til recently. Only now do I appreciate just how superb Ishtar is (and I daresay May and her troupe of actors were making more of a movie instinctively than they explicitly intended). When I did I realized that it’s much more than amusing slick shtick, not just old pros guving us a slapstick entertainment . . .
    Ishtar is a) sardonic, artful and wise about art’s wellspring and how confused we can be about that, b) politically prescient–stunningly so when you consider it came out 14 years prior to 9/11–about Mideast conflicts and American naivete and not-so-innocent involvment in same, c) and simply brilliant–I am talking here cinematic poetry–in its thoroughly unsentimental depiction of fulsome, redemptive friendship.
    Elaine May’s telling us about (no, depicting) the human condition, our aspiration for meaning, in quite the way great artists do . . . the only way it’s doable and authentic–with a story and a light touch . . . . The film’s born of the the kind of wit/spirit that gave us “Midsummer NIght’s Dream”, “Huck Finn”, “Waiting for Godot” . . . May’s very much a part of an artistic tradtion. (To appreciate my seriousness on this score, I would suggest you see her genius and where she’s coming from by going back and giving a listen to the Nichols&May comedic turns.)

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