So infamous has its reputation become that to this day, critics use it as a standard by which they judge modern-day box office failures. For instance, Waterworld’s box office failure induced critics to derisively nickname it “Fishtar.”
I found this reputation exaggerated (much like fellow bombs Hudson Hawk and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). I judge the film as not terrific, but a mildly amusing proto-bromance. It feels mostly like one of those inoffensive, undistinguished comedies you watch and forget by the end of the week, like Get Smart, Welcome to Collinwood, RV, or any given Broken Lizard film. Your average film buff would “review” it in conversation with a perfunctory shrug and an insouciant utterance of, “Yeah, I’ve seen it.”
Arabs of Ishtar
Although Ishtar takes place in the fictional title city in Morocco,1 the Arab characters serve mostly as background noise for the interplay between the two stars, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. The screenplay boasts walls of exposition in an attempt to integrate the two stars into the setting and the geopolitics therein, but the Moroccan citizenry still only play a minor role overall.
|They still look pretty and variegated, though.|
|CIA agents, KGB agents, Arab agents, and Turkish agents, all disguised as something else, flank the two main characters.|
This serves as a microcosm for the film.
Half-Kabyle model/actress Isabelle Adjani plays Shirra Assel, the central love interest and a Communist-allied insurgent leader. Adjani plays Shirra as androgynous and tenacious, which I like. Still, her putative “boyish” appearance in the film (which, frankly, I don’t see) feels like it has its roots in the longstanding Hollywood reputation of Arab women as somehow less attractive than Aryan women.
|Then again, I’ll compliment anyone standing in front of me with a suppressed Mac-10.|
May portrays Shirra’s insurgent cell as morally roughly equivalent to their oppressors. I found this very much a product of its time; in post-9/11 America, just about any film would portray these characters as malicious, malevolent, barbaric terrorists. This film doesn’t go that far, but it does depict them as Communists (a decidedly negative appellation in a Cold War American film) using less-than-honorable means.
|I have some moral issues with the haze of secondhand smoke they create too.|
|Fuad offers to sell them hashish because truly, in his heart of hearts, he wants to help these men by getting them high.|
|They all appear to shop at the same place too.|
|The emir plays dumb as he plans his next move.|
|The comedy lies less in the clothes than the mannerisms anyway. Three years later, these two…|
|… will dress like this.2|
Everything Else of Ishtar
Ishtar tells the story of Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman), a Steely Dan-esque team of two gormless, unsuccessful, aging singer-songwriters, oblivious to their ineptitude, who have the ambition to become the next Simon & Garfunkel and the naïveté to fail spectacularly thereat. This gets them a booking in Morocco, where they quickly find themselves hapless pawns in a much larger political game.
|Rogers & Clarke look better in their own minds than on the stage.|
|The quasi-romantic overtones still remain, at least.|
To its credit, though, the film gets funnier as it goes. As in Road to Morocco, the two get a chance to really play off each other as they hunt for an oasis in the obligatory desert sequence that comprises the third act.
|Also, May gives Hoffman & Beatty a lot of delightfully awkward two-shots.|
In all probability, Ishtar’s politics played some small part in its performance. When the protagonists become embroiled in the power struggle between the incumbent far-right leader and American ally Emir Yousef and the far-left, Communist-allied insurgents, the situation escalates into a climax that questions America’s allegiances in the Middle East and makes Reagan’s America look disloyal to its citizens. Although President Reagan had an approval rating hovering around 50% at that time—his lowest in four years—that still probably amounted to enough people who didn’t want to pay to see a film that openly challenges their politics.
I recommend that any film buff watch this film once simply to see Warren Beatty play against type. The bumbling, gullible, socially-maladjusted milquetoast he plays in this film feels like a 180° turn from his arrogant, womanizing persona. Seeing Warren Beatty as a diffident, lachrymose, ungainly novice causes the kind of mind-blowing cognitive dissonance one must experience firsthand to believe.
|With an intriguing self-awareness, Beatty and Hoffman play with the weirdness of seeing them as struggling, wide-eyed hopefuls.|
|This probably also marks the only time you’ll ever see Warren Beatty as an ice cream man.|
|Chuck over-prepares for suicide.|
|At least Grodin does it romantically…|
|… at first.|
|By the time Jack Weston answers the phone and grunts, “Freed Talent Agency,” our eyes have already told us all about Marty Freed’s character.|
|This shot of Lyle’s house in the midst of a divorce says a thousand words about his life now and before he met Chuck.|
In any case, I wouldn’t call this an earth-shattering film by any stretch of the imagination. It feels somewhat obsolete now that we have political comedies like Burn After Reading and oblivious-to-their-incompetence comedies like Waiting For Guffman, but I’ve killed two hours in worse ways before. Although the political aspect of the film still feels disjointed from the actual narrative, the film still makes an interesting point that remains relevant in the wake of Arab Spring: the American government’s interests in a foreign nation don’t always coincide with the best interests or the will of its people. As of this writing, we have yet to see all of the ramifications of the Arab uprisings, so it never hurts to remember this.
1 In yet another demonstration of how much Hollywood actually knows about the Arab world, they named their fictional Moroccan city after a deity worshipped thousands of years ago, 1567 miles away. By that logic, the Confederate States of America started as a Mayan colony.
2 For those of you living under a rock, this still comes from Dick Tracy, my favorite “superhero” movie of all time.