Elaine May’s comedy Ishtar is remembered more for its tremendous financial failings than its actual content. Even causal cinephiles know the name Ishtar simply because of its infamous reputation as the crowning champ of box office defeat. It’s a damn shame though, because it’s a worthy comedy that is bizarrely unique and sorta ahead of its time. The dry, peculiar humor of the film may resonate better with a modern audience and with the new barebones Blu-ray release from Sony, hopefully people give the film another shot. More of our review of the Ishtar “director’s cut” Blu-ray after the jump.
Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman star as struggling NYC songwriters Lyle Rogers and Chuck “the Hawk” Clarke. Despite their naive enthusiasm for each others’ lyricism, the fact of the matter is that they’re really not that good. That doesn’t stop them from landing an agent who suggests that they take a gig playing for tourists in Morocco. After getting over their initial apprehension, the duo accept the gig and off they fly to North Africa, giving off the airs of some hot shot American chart toppers.
Before they even make it out of the airport, they get mixed up in cloak-and-dagger power plays between the warring political factions of the region. A rebel named Shirra (Isabelle Adjani – Possession) ropes Chuck into giving her his passport and a CIA agent played by Charles Grodin (Beethoven) recruits them to for some sketchy U.S. interests. Before you can say “we’ve made a huge mistake,” Lyle and Chuck are balls deep in gunfights, rebel skirmishes, and the brutality of the desert.
But all they wanna do is play music and sing to an adoring crowd. The most entertaining moments of the film come from Lyle and Chuck working on their craft and performing. The film’s humorous original songs were written by May and Paul Williams, whose impressive resume includes songs for the Muppets and Phantom of the Paradise. The song we hear the most of is “Dangerous Business,” which includes the amazing lyrics “Life is an audition for God; let us pray that we all get the job.” That’s gold, right there.
Where the film crumbles a bit is under the convoluted plot involving an ancient map that could set off a regional war in Ishtar. The story of a couple of goofballs thrown into a situation way over their heads is nothing new and May’s film clumsily goes through the motions of a classic misadventure. The solidarity of the story lines isn’t really strong, resulting in an overall muddled experience.
Luckily, the casting of Hoffman and Beatty elevates Ishtar to a huge degree and disallows easy dismissal of the film. Even during the worst moments, the two manage to significantly lighten things up. Their charming friendship and devotion to one another is really touching at times, particularly when Chuck finds himself at his lowest. They’re ability to get through all of the shootouts and chases seems like pure dumb luck, but it’s also their loyalty to each other and belief that they’re destined for greatness that sees them through the tough shit. The delivery of their deadpan responses and confused comments, especially Beatty’s, is hilarious. It’s the type of humor being copied by every “mockumentary” sitcom on television, y’know?
Together Beatty and Hoffman deliver a genuinely memorable onscreen friendship that makes the film worth seeing. Even if it is the only reason.
Ishtar is presented for the first time in 1080p HD, 1.85:1 widescreen. Details and textures look great, particularly in the exterior scenes. The colors in North Africa aren’t very vivid, so much of the picture looks naturally flat. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is pretty lackluster. For the most part, it doesn’t sound much different from the optional mono track. It would’ve been nice to give their song performances a real punch.
The special features are as bare as the Sahara. Besides some trailers for other Sony releases, there’s nothing. The absence of features isn’t so bad when you consider the relatively cheap retail price. I suggest buying it and being obnoxiously proud you have Ishtar on the shelf. The film may never shed its bad reputation, but film fans deserve to watch it at least once. I have a feeling many will be shocked by how entertaining it is.