Now Streaming | Ishtar | 1987

Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Elaine May's ISHTAR.

Once synonymous with phrase "box office bomb," Elaine May's notorious 1987 flop, Ishtar, has been the subject of some critical re-evaluation in more recent years. 

In many ways, Ishtar was a victim of its own reputation - the troubled production and incessant delays giving it an air of failure before it even arrived in theaters. Seemingly unhappy with the difficult process and the poor reception, its stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty would publicly distance themselves from the film, even if they were reportedly happy, even proud, of the finished product. Elaine May never directed another film.

Yet despite its reputation, Ishtar is surprisingly good. Gary Larson, creator of the comic strip "The Far Side," would later apologize for a cartoon he once published of Hell's Blockbuster being stocked with nothing but copies of Ishtar. He admitted to not seeing the film before drawing the cartoon, and regretted the dig after watching it on an airplane, taken aback by how much he enjoyed it.  

Conceived as a kind of modern-day "Roat To" movie much like the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby films of the 1940s like Road to Morocco and Road to ZanzibarIshtar follows the exploits of two washed-up lounge singers (Hoffman and Beatty) who find themselves in the middle of an international conflict at a gig in Morocco when one falls in love with a communist revolutionary (Isabelle Adjani) and the other gets tricked into becoming a CIA informant. 

Ishtar plays its humor much more straight than the Hope/Crosby comedies, which may explain why it never connected with audiences, but it's that deadpan nature that really makes it work. The two protagonists take themselves so seriously, making the outlandish scenarios they find themselves trapped in all the more ridiculous. The film itself, on the other hand, is much more self-aware, and its criticisms of US foreign policy and how the CIA destabilizes developing nations and props up brutal dictators are surprisingly astute for a big-budget studio comedy, especially in the waning days of the Cold War. Is it a great film? Not particularly. Nor is it some misunderstood masterpiece. But it is a solid comedy that does not deserve the negative reputation with which its box office failure branded it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ISHTAR | Directed by Elaine May | Stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper, Carol Kane | Rated PG-13 | Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Popular Posts