Nether Regions 05.18.10: Ishtar
Posted by Chad Webb on 05.18.2010
It was only a matter of time until this column reached the epic flop from 1987. Enter if you dare!
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Isabelle Adjani Directed By: Elaine May Written By: Elaine May Running Time: 107 minutes Theatrical Release Date: May 15, 1987 Missing Since: 1994 Existing Formats:VHS and Region 2 DVD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Rare - Hard to buy, but not to watch
It is one of the biggest flops of all-time. It is considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made. It is Ishtar, and it is this week's edition of Nether Regions. For those that pride themselves on having seen a lot of bad movies, there will come a point when you have to seek out Ishtar. In terms of reputation, it was the Gigli of its time. The question is whether or not that permanently ugly legacy is fading without a DVD release to stir the pot. Disasters like Showgirls have gotten the royal treatment, including a fan commentary. This is what Ishtar needs, but that is not likely to happen since most of the people involved in the debacle maintain to this day that it "is a very good, not very big, comedy, made by a brilliant woman."
Warren Beatty has equated the negativity to the production woes and budgetary problems that were widely known at the time, even before its release. Since this was pre-Internet days, this would have been pretty significant. And it is certainly something that occurs with critics. To this day the mention of production issues will send most writers firmly into the camp that the film will be bad. This can, at times, be supremely unfair, but in the case of Ishtar the troubled history does not change the fact that it is just a bad movie. You can make all the excuses you want, but what we see on screen is not entertaining. And like many notoriously panned films, it has gathered a cult audience, whose outspoken defense is not difficult to unearth on forums and random sites. Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright are two admitted fans.
Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers get er done at the Chez Casablanca.
The story focuses on two terrible lounge singers named Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) that go by "Rogers & Clarke". Their goal is to be like Simon & Garfunkle. After their wives leave them, they try harder to make it big. Upon finding an agent, he offers them a gig in Morocco making a measely sum each week. They will be playing at the Chez Casablanca, but before that becomes a reality, their plane lands at Ishtar, near the Moroccan border. At the airport, Chuck is approached by left-wing radical Arab Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani) to give her his passport and luggage and switch jackets. From there, the two become involved in a four-way Communist standoff situation. Once Chuck reports his missing passport, he runs into CIA agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), who hires him as a spy and tells him to join his partner Lyle in Marrakech. Meanwhile, Lyle is hired by Shirra to be a spy for the rebels when she learns of Chuck's ties to the CIA. The Emir of Ishtar, supported by the US government, is worried about the leftist revolution. At the center of this whole scenario is a valuable map which was held by Shirra's brother until he died. The US and the Emir want it, apparently to avoid a larger Middle East conflict. Eventually, everyone wants Chuck and Lyle, known as the "Two Messengers", to be killed in the desert.
Just about everyone involved in this dropped the ball at some point or another. The leads are the easiest place to start. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are two versatile and charismatic actors, but they do not have the skills to pull off the music numbers. "Rogers & Clark" sing horrible songs (written by Elaine May and Paul Williams) and have no sense of what it takes to sound decent. This is the point. They are supposed to be off-key and the lyrics are meant to be nonsensical and uninteresting. The problem is, all that is also intended to be funny, and quite honestly, it is not. You can phrase that however you want and it can sound as witty and as intelligent as a critic can type out, but it all boils down to the fact that Ishtar is the opposite of humorous. It's pathetic. I will confess to chuckling at one scene, which displayed Hoffman celebrating the 53rd wedding anniversary of a couple who frequents the restaurant he performs at by singing an original called "Love in My Will" that touted the impending end of their lives. Other than that, it was depressing.
Plus, the whole shtick gets old. Regardless of the fact that the musical numbers never elicit laughs, Elaine May keeps returning to them, bludgeoning the viewer with song after song that makes us sit and stare at the screen blankly, wondering when something, anything will jar us back to life. The first half of Ishtar will result in the viewer sitting in a daze, whereas the second half collapses into an epic adventure tale, a gauchely assembled one at that. It actually tops itself by becoming increasingly inept with each minute passing by. Beatty and Hoffman are two very charming men, yet they portray characters that do not possess an inkling of that trait, and they are trying to convince the audience that they are believable in such a role. They are selling themselves as schmucks, or "smucks" as Lyle would put it, but no one is buying what they're selling. Not every moviegoer is a genius, but a phony is not hard to spot.
Dustin Hoffman is his usual manic self as Chuck Clarke, and it is plainly obvious that he is being restrained and forcibly pinned down by the convoluted plot. He could have taken charge of the film and perhaps induced a few more solid moments, but instead it seems like Hoffman is trying way too hard. Hoffman's style is akin to a starving lion wandering around frantically searching for a piece of meat to sink his teeth into. The sad irony is that he is in the desert where there is only millions of grains of sand for miles, so he must come to grips with the reality that he can only do so much with so little. This is not a terrible exertion because Hoffman can be a funny person, but he does not meet with the character requirements, perhaps because no one would.
Fun with camels = A Razzie nominated catastrophe.
If Hoffman at least tried to put the puzzle together in a coherent fashion, Beatty just embarrasses himself. This is easily Beatty's worst effort as an actor. He's given poor turn before in movies like Kaleidoscope and Town & Country, but this takes the cake and smashes it mainly because he's as stiff and wooden as a 2x4. The mind reels at fathoming how Beatty could have been satisfied with his efforts, especially when he's working out a ditty as an ice cream man that drives around and ignores kids. Beatty has played against type a great deal in his career, and on occasion it can be effective, but in this case it was a colossal failure. When he is acting like a fool in the desert, wearing a turban, or dancing around mechanically on stage, he might as well be screaming at us that his heart is not fully invested in the material.
Charles Grodin deserves credit for understanding the absurdity of the script and delivering a tongue-in-cheek performance that is not exactly praiseworthy, but at the absolute minimum, tolerable. He appears to be the lone cast member who found and planted himself in the correct stance May desired. Isabelle Adjani is the central female rebel Shirra, and it should come as no shock that Adjani accepted parts infrequently after this. The motivations and mindset of Shirra is a mystery from the time she enters and shakes things up until the final shot. Next to nothing is learned about Shirra, and I found it odd that the costume which covered most of her body and face prevented us from ever getting to know her at all. If she is meant as a love interest for either Rogers or Clarke, it is perplexing. Tess Harper (Tender Mercies) and Carol Kane (The Princess Bride) are forgettable as the two women that get fed up with Chuck and Lyle in New York City. Looking back at their quick exit, I wish I had joined them. Jack Weston (Dirty Dancing) is also adequate in the minor part as the agent of Rogers & Clarke.
Elaine May has directed 4 films, and 2 are worthwhile. However, I have not seen Mikey and Nicky, but want to soon. The Heartbreak Kid, her sophomore picture, proved her proficiency in the comedy genre. If she had stayed on a level roadway, the crumbled chunks of Ishtar could have been salvaged in some form. Instead, she shifts the attention to the Middle East and transforms a comedy of two losers into an adventure quest laced with political commentary. If May wanted anyone to absorb a possible message about the US and its relationships with foreign countries, or our agenda against Communism, her aim is as crooked as Hoffman's silly run when he is eluding gunfire. It gets lost, along with her idea of what Ishtar should be.
In many ways, Elaine May is attempting to capture the spirit of the Crosby-Hope "road" franchise, specifically Road to Morocco, but the stars are miscast and the screenplay is messier than a frat boy's dorm room after a night of partying. What Bing Crosby and Bob Hope did was pump out fare that was disposable, light, and corny in an old-fashioned sort of way. Ishtar strives for more and whether anyone admits it or not, prefers to be profound and momentus. May wants it to be an ageless blockbuster that anyone can watch at anytime, but those dreams are not fulfilled. If she had a moderately specific goal planned, what is actually seen suffers from multiple personalities worse than the crazed bald criminal in Identity. The sharp and strident transition from an intimate slapstick comedy to a large-scale action treasure hunt generates permanent wounds. By the way, what is the treasure and why was it included?
"Hell's Video Store" from Gary Larson's Far Side Comics All the store needs is Battlefield Earth.
This was Elaine May's final submission as a filmmaker to date. The rumors of what took place during production are not as legendary as the Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo shoots, but still well-known. May did not get along with Beatty, Adjani, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and many of the crew members. The Moroccan shooting was an endless array of obstacles, including vast cost overruns and plenty of intense arguments. Due to a change in studio management midway through post-production, the process took longer and the path was bumpier because the new head of production at the time heavily criticized Beatty and Hoffman for earlier projects and budget excesses. May edited Ishtar for months. In fact, there were three teams of editors, one each for Beatty, May, and Hoffman. The studio finally threatened legal action. That is just the tip of the iceberg. If any documentary should have been made about the filming of a troubled picture, this was it.
Storaro's cinematography is poor most of the time. His look is too luxuriant and nauseating. May could have had passion for this pile of junk at some point, but as the story rolls along, her fondness for the package and the thoughtfulness she instills quickly evaporates. The drawn-out screenplay strikes me as unimportant at times, as if certain sub-plots take a deep backseat to something else. The snag is that I'm not sure what that "something else" is. While watching Ishtar, I wondered if anyone truly cared about what was transpiring. Everyone is either lazy or so arrogant that they feel the story explains itself just fine. The substance is nowhere near great enough to assume such a haughty attitude. May is a better writer than she is a director, and unfortunately she embraces the latter for Ishtar while sending the former out to pasture. With a background in theater, she didn't know how to film a shootout with a helicopter for a finale, and was fooling herself to try it seems. Was she trying to graduate to a higher class of directing without hitting the necessary steps in the middle?
Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman accepted the roles in Ishtar because both felt indebted to May for various reasons. While they both meant well and wanted to repay her, it turned out to be the wrong reason to do a film. Nothing lined up smoothly. Elaine May took two more screenwriting credits for The Birdcage and Primary Colors, but the experience of Ishtar was evidently bad enough that she has never sat in the director's chair since. It's a shame too, considering her witty sense of humor could be a breath of fresh air amongst current comedies. I'm not sure if I'd place Ishtar in the category of worst films ever made, but if it is outside that ballpark it is resting in the parking lot close by. It is unwieldy and comatose, if that's possible.
There is a sequence late in the story where Rogers and Clarke are crawling through the desert on no water, and they are disoriented, much like the film as a whole if you ask me. They begin sharing lyrics for new songs in their weakened state and all of a sudden start laughing hysterically. For just a moment, one questions whether or not they are laughing at us, for having sat through all of this inanity and pointlessness. Maybe they were laughing at themselves for having the energy to think of tunes at such a strange time. Maybe. All I know is one thing was abundantly clear. The joke, whether calculated or not, was on the viewer. Har har.
If you wish to see Ishtar, you need only a passable internet connection because it can be found on many streaming sites such as hulu, imdb, and probably youtube. If this ever received a DVD release, I would only endure the pain again if it had a commentary with the stars and the director. I won't hold my breath.