Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ishtar (1987)

In Hollywood, Elaine May’s Middle-Eastern Cold War farce Ishtar has become synonymous with failure. The film had a notoriously catastrophic production; discord abounded, tempers flared, and friendships shattered. Production went so far over budget that Ishtar became the biggest-budget comedy in history up to that point. May found herself fighting against everyone as well as her own health. Ishtar earned only about 26% of what it cost. Critics called it every name in the book. What started as star Warren Beatty vouchsafing a career opportunity to his friend May ended in a dramatic falling-out between the two and later a breakup between Beatty and his then-girlfriend, co-star Isabelle Adjani, because of this film. May found her directing career destroyed and her Hollywood career in general reduced to a tiny trickle. Only in the last few years has the film become even possible to procure legally in America.

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.
Most of the speaking Arab roles have their grounding in the usual Hollywood clichés.

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.
Shirra describes Morocco as “an ancient, devious country,” once again playing off the American reputation of the Arab World as exotic and barbaric.

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.
Another actual Arab actor, Fuad Hageb, plays Abdul, the protagonists’ soi-disant “guide” in Morocco (secretly a member of said cell). He acts every bit the unctuous, fawning “street rat,” reminiscent of Abu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) or Aladdin.

Fuad offers to sell them hashish because truly, in his heart of hearts, he wants to help these men by getting them high.
Later in the film, our heroes stumble upon a black market auction between Australian arms dealers and Berber tribesmen. This leads to a general categorization of these Moroccans as ignorant, provincial, and dangerous.

They all appear to shop at the same place too.
Actual Moroccan Aharon Ipalé plays Emir Yousef, the authoritarian panjandrum in control of Ishtar, whose loyalty straddles the taut line between America and Libya. Ipalé plays the emir with the usual sly, cunning, backstabbing persona one sees in moneyed Arabs in American film.

The emir plays dumb as he plans his next move.
All things considered, I find it difficult to take offense at the depiction of Arabs in Ishtar, since most of the Aryan characters appear similarly oblivious, slow-witted, or conniving. The film depicts cloak-and-dagger intrigue and skullduggery on all sides. The film also makes subtle jokes at how ridiculous the American characters look in Moroccan clothes, but people have joked about looking ridiculous in the wrong clothes since the dawn of Man, so I don’t see much of a problem there.

The comedy lies less in the clothes than the mannerisms anyway. Three years later, these two…
… will dress like this.2
Besides, at this point, I can’t help but consider it a minor victory whenever Arabs play Arabs in a Hollywood film.

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.
May intended this film as a love letter to the Road to… film series starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (with Dorothy Lamour always playing the love interest, a role Adjani inherits in this film). Despite May’s intentions, Ishtar couldn’t feel more different. Both duos rely on their existing celebrity status for a lot of the laughs, but Hoffman & Beatty play their roles as more earnest and less self-aware, thereby failing to recreate the inimitable chemistry between Crosby & Hope.

The quasi-romantic overtones still remain, at least.
May replaces the fourth-wall-prodding, self-deprecating comedy between Crosby & Hope with something subtler, more subdued, and more “serious.” Paul Williams’ “bad on purpose” music feels nothing like Crosby’s and Hope’s stagey, banter-filled performances, which intensifies the gulf. Where the Road to… films operate off of the open secret that the story serves as a mere excuse for the comedy, Ishtar loses itself in its story, often allowing the story to completely commandeer the comedy. It doesn’t help that Beatty and Hoffman spend large swaths of the film—and most of the second act—separated.

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 one of the few other parallels with Road to Morocco, the story turns on a prophecy. In this case, a map—the film’s token MacGuffin—foretells that two “messengers of God” will appear in Ishtar, Morocco. (Guess who!) The film’s comedy takes a backseat to this somewhat overdone story for most of the second act, causing this to often feel like two different films mashed together.

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.
Hoffman holds his own as a credulous, self-aggrandizing, quirky songwriter as well, but with the much wider diversity in his résumé, it doesn’t feel as incongruous.

Chuck over-prepares for suicide.
Human cardboard box Charles Grodin proves the biggest drag on the film as CIA agent Jim Harrison. As the straightest of straight men, he gets several scenes where he drones unfunny, unnecessary, boring exposition that ties into real-life geopolitics but summarily kills the rest of the film’s momentum. Grodin’s character exists mostly to sow distrust between the two protagonists, which ultimately does more harm than good to the protagonists’ comedic interplay.

At least Grodin does it romantically…
… at first.
I found the set design surprisingly impressive. For all that May did wrong with this movie, she, Paul Sylbert, and Jim Erickson seemed to have a keen sense of how to convey character through where people live and spend their time.

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.
Paul Williams does a decent job with the score. His job entails writing catchy “bad” music and he does it well. This film doesn’t give a true cross-section of his formidable talents like the amazing Phantom of the Paradise does, but he pulls his weight. He also scores the action scenes, making them surprisingly engrossing, if relatively brief.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, and I like your points on the film. I feel the same feeling towards it too-- nothing terrible, but nothing to write home about either.

    Elaine Mae did make some great films though, so check out The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf if you haven't.