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Ishtar:One of the Greatest Box Office Flops or Great Cult Movie
Ishtar, box-office disaster destroyed by the critics, starred famed actors Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, and was written and directed by legendary comedian Elaine May, who had been writing, directing, and performing comedy since the 1950s. The movie was badly received by critics and movie-goers, taking a heavy loss at theaters and forever at the bad end of jokes. However, personally, I consider it one of the best in comedy entertainment, a comedy classic among cult films, a departure for Beatty and Hoffman, with keen insight into American foreign policy; considering the political and social climate of the era, it might not be so surprising that it was received badly by the public. Though, we might speculate in today's environment it could be a huge success, especially considering its rather accurate, yet comical, portrayal of US relations in the Middle East.
When I was a teenager, I recorded the movie onto a VHS right off of cable, and watched it often, mostly for the blatantly and purposely horrible songs that kept me rolling with laughter every time I watched the movie. It never got old.
Classic Skit with Elaine May and Mike Nichols
The Story and the Characters
The movie follows two bumbling guys, both down on their luck, who are convinced that they can be recording artists and entertainers. Chuck Clark, played by Hoffman, is a lounge singer at a bustling restaurant where Lyle Rodgers, played by Beatty, stumbles upon him; Chuck is there singing some rather atrocious and inappropriate songs, including a song dedicated to an elderly couple at the restaurant in which Chuck expounds on how the couple is very near the grave. However, Lyle considers Chuck's work genius and the two of them hit it off.
In one comical scene after another, the pair work arduously to compose songs, struggling and eventually triumphant at creating some of the worst compositions in history, but which they believe are masterpieces. Modelling themselves after Simon and Garfunkle, they embark on making a name for themselves in music. With the help of Chuck's agent, they get gigs which end disastrously, yet never deter the duo from trudging through the mud. Meantime, their girlfriends, tired of their hopeless schemes, abandon both men, which shatters Chuck and Lyle's hearts, though thereafter the team take the event as a cue to really go for the gusto. Chuck's agent finds them a gig in Morocco, which they initially turn down, but having reached rock bottom, they decide to take the leap and travel overseas for a musical opportunity of a lifetime.
The pair are delayed in a middle-eastern country called Ishtar, mid-travel. At the airport, a revolutionary, a woman named Shirra (played by Isabelle Adjani), finds Chuck (singing to himself) and opts to hand over a map to him, a map which has political relevance that is sought by the local government.
Long story short, the pair become big hits in Ishtar, well-received by locals and tourists at a quaint night-spot.
Meantime, Shirra continues to meet with Chuck, but also begins meeting with Lyle. She convinces Lyle to join and aid the revolution. Strangely enough, Chuck is found by a CIA agent (played by Charles Grodin) who plants a bug on him and pays him to start giving the Agency information about the revolutionaries.
Eventually, things get heavy, and the singing duo ends up in battle with the CIA.
I won't give away the rest.
More on the Characters
One of the things about this movie that made it rather hilarious was the pairing of Hoffman and Beatty, giving them roles traditionally they hadn't played. When you think of the nervous and socially awkward Hoffman in The Graduate and Beatty's reputation as a Ladies' Man, it becomes more humorous to watch Beatty as the awkward country bumpkin that, in the movie, looks up to Hoffman's character who is pretentiously cool and smooth though just about as hopeless as his song writing companion.
The interaction of other characters in the movie are equally tickling, especially Grodin's CIA character who is struggling to keep relations with the local government smooth, a characterization unfortunately relevant to actual strained and confused relations that the US government has with the middle-east. In addition, the revolutionaries' and local population's moments with Rodgers and Clark are interesting and comical in many spots. Of note is the scene in which the pair come upon gun runners in the desert. A classic scene and a highlight of the movie. May says that the scene was actually shot with Berbers in the desert, not actors; seemed to add to the comedy effect.
An interesting aspect on the marketing end of this movie, is that David Puttnam, who just so happened to be conservative with money and was also bitter toward Hoffman and Beatty both due to past animosity, became head of Columbia Pictures, the studio that released the movie. He neither liked the stars nor the size of the budget for the movie, and it is said he released information about the movie going over-budget. According to May, people forever associated the movie with its heavy budget costs and never gave it a chance at the next screening, though the original screening, before Puttnam took over, went well.
Why It's Worth It
Politics and rumor aside, this movie is certainly worth watching. If for no other reason, to see Beatty and Hoffman in their unusual comedy roles as buffoons seriously deluded about their song writing abilities. To me, it's comic genius, and I applaud the stars and the well-seasoned comedy chops of legend Elaine May. At the very least, this film has become a cult classic, one of the best comedy films I've ever seen, and an enjoyment for the likes of me.