May 16, 2017

Why "Ishtar" is an Underrated Film After 30 Years

Scene from Ishtar
Every now and then, there comes a movie that becomes synonymous with the word "box office bomb." It becomes short hand for something terrible and poisonous. There's your Heavens Gates, Cleopatras, Battlefield Earths, your The Adventures of Pluto Nashes. They are films generally perceived as awful no matter how good the film actually is. In the case of 1987's Ishtar, it's probably due a deep misunderstanding. It was a comedy about terrible lounge singers being forced to perform in Ishtar. There's the C.I.A., rebels, bad tunes, and a whole lot of weird action beats. Yes, it is idiosyncratic and maybe a bit different from what is expected from 1980's comedy, but it is arguably ahead of its time in a painfully obvious way. It's a film that required a certain understanding of its subversion to fully appreciate. At 30 years old, it is one of those films that can truthfully be called a box office bomb, but shouldn't be called a bad movie.
It's true that the premise does sound a little grating. Why would anyone make a movie about bad musicians? Better yet, why would the Oscar winning duo behind films like Reds, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The Graduate decide to star in it? From director and writer Elaine May, the story feels prescient to an era defined by Cold War politics and an increasing trouble with the Middle East. While it doesn't take a history book to appreciate the subtext of Ishtar, it explains the film's intents in which Average Joes were thrust into an unlikely situation. It's the set-up of almost every comedy going back to Charles Chaplin and The Marx Brothers. This just happened to feature such wonderfully awful songs as "Dangerous Business."

But is it awful on accident? There's something to the chorus that is downright charming. As Dustin Hoffman continues the lyrics, Warren Beatty goes to harmony. With a hokey tribal rhythm, it satirizes modern pop by showing how silly the structure is. The lyrics wink at the audience, managing to cover the plot in mundane, sometimes amateurish ways. By the halfway mark, it's become such an audacious undertaking that you cannot help but admire two fairly talented performers doing fairly untalented singing. Even the production of the song works in an infectious way that every dumb pop song does, but with better harmonies.
It's the type of mentality that should be applied to the rest of the film. Beatty and Hoffman play Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke respectively. Before the film gets too far along, there's a sense of desperation. They cannot write songs and are contemplating suicide. They aren't too intelligent, so any darkness becomes easy to overlook. What is there is a passion for music. They want to perform and take a gig at a Moroccan night club with the intent of making easy money. Would the joke work if they had good songs like, say, The Monkees? Probably not. It adds a needed layer of confusion to wonder just how Lyle and Chuck got that far into the plot. Everything after is almost convenient by comparison.
From the set-up, the movie becomes an insane mix of styles. Chuck and Lyle are comedic in their hopelessness as they get lost in the desert and accidentally encourage peril. If there's any issue, it's that the high flying action overshadows the comedy and the film tonally jumps around to what the scene needs. Depending on how much you like the main duo, what follows could be an amazing slog or triumph. After all, it's a dumb comedy first and foremost. It just so happens to place that alongside the smart espionage thrillers that were commonplace of the time. If anything, this is where the film is misunderstood, as it's probably better remembered for being that film with bad musicians who really shouldn't be in the Middle East.

While Ishtar is influential in being a box office bomb, it has probably had a subtle influence on comedy from decades later. There's plenty of stories of dimwitted males put into smart situations. Comedians like Will Ferrell has applied this formula to sports comedies like Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory. Films like Keanu and Pineapple Express take an edgy twist on the formula by making the violence more explicit alongside the absurd comedy tropes of cat memes and stoner flicks. Bill Murray starred in his own quasi-Ishtar movie Rock the Kasbah (which fittingly bombed as well). Even in terms of anti-comedy, the work of director Rick Alverson is even more ambitious in finding the line between annoying and funny with his divisive films The Comedy and Entertainment. Still, the value of making an intentionally bad song is something that not just any performer can do. To discredit the soundtrack to Ishtar by Dave Grusin is to suggest that you could write a song that is inspired in subverting genre enough to be bad but catchy at the same time. Not even Andy Samberg's Popstar reaches that heights.
The movie may never get recognized as the inventive and fun movie that it should be, but at least it has its fans. The people at Waiting for Ishtar chronicle the making of a documentary about the film as well as serve as a community for fans. It may not be the high point on neither Hoffman or Beatty's resume, but it doesn't deserve its status as the worst thing that either's done. If anything, Beatty's only gotten weirder with Bulworth. Even Elaine May's Razzie win for Worst Director seems out of place, if just because of her ambitious subversion to genre tropes. Ishtar is a fun film that was ahead of its time and maybe is too specific in tone to be considered brilliant. Even then, it's an endlessly fascinating movie that excels at being idiosyncratic. It may never be more than a box office bomb, but hopefully it can resurrect as a cult film.

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