Joe’s Blog

Ishtar (1987)

April 13, 2012 5:14 am

 

Hollywood is pretty much dead to me now. As long as they continue to churn out uninspired sequels, yawn-inducing remakes and continually force people to pay an extra £2 to watch a film in headache-causing 3D, I’ll be keeping my cinema going hard earned for more worthy fare than Avengers Assemble or Men in Black 3.

There is one thing that Hollywood could do to presuade me back to their wares, and that’s to start making hugely budgeted flops. They literally don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Market conditions, block booking and heavy marketing mean that by the time most people have discovered a film is an absolute clunker, it’s already made its money back in ‘advance screenings’.

But, I’ve always been drawn to flops. In the past, I paid up to watch films like Waterworld, Last Action Hero, Hudson Hawk. Even Bonfire of the Vanities got some dosh off me at the cinema. I had no idea what it was about. I’d never heard of, let alone read, the book (I was only 14 at the time). But I had spent months reading about what an absolute disaster it was going to be, and that was enough for me. As someone more talented than me once said “When the gold plated limo starts to swerve, you have to stay and watch it crash’.

Ishtar has for many years eluded me. Rarely shown on TV, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a video shop. Apparently you can buy it on DVD, but I’ve never seen it anywhere (this is the UK. It has NEVER been released on DVD in the USA!). So when it cropped up on Lovefilm Instant, I just had to watch it.

Ishtar very quickly became more famous for its background than for the film itself, and its title became a Hollywood byword for the excesses of out of control stars. It ruined a director’s career and wrecked David Puttnam’s time as head of Columbia Pictures almost as soon as he took the job (he had nothing to do with its inception, but was more than happy to criticize it) . It’s budget was more than double the average for its time, and the costs just kept going up. It would have needed to have been the biggest film of the year to make its money back. And the chances were, in 1987, that a musical, with deliberately bad songs, sung by two stars who can’t sing, was never going to be as popular as buddy-cop car chase movies.

You read that right. The plot, such as it is, involves Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a pair of awful lounge singers getting themselves in some shenanigens in the Middle East, a potential coup which could destabilise the whole area. By its own admission, it’s an attempt to recreate the dubious magic of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies. The difference is, those two were entertainers, rather than actors. The films were very carefully crafted for their particular talents. Beatty and Hoffman are actors, and Ishtar is NEVER geared towards their talents.

This was a package, put together by Beatty, who wanted to do his friend Elaine May a favour. He’d set up a project for her as a ‘thank you’ for rewriting his huge hit Heaven Can Wait. He got his buddy Hoffman involved (May had done script work for him on Tootsie). In a supporting role, they called upon Charles Grodin, who’s career had been made by another rare May directing gig, The Heartbreak Kid. Beatty collared his then-girlfriend, Isabelle Adjani, for the female lead (and, astonishingly, 2nd billing).

One of these three doesn’t have an Oscar… but she at least has her dignity.

These people, Hollywood’s annointed ones, were left alone deep in the heart of the Morrocan desert with $50 million of someone else’s money to make what they genuinely thought would be an Oscar winning film.

Ishtar deserves its awful reputation. there is absolutely nothing in the way of good film-making on show here. The first 30 minutes are spent on an interminably lengthy flashback (notably short on laughs) showing how our undynamic duo ended up together. What they don’t show is how their dreadful act mangaed to secure them not only an agent, but bookings! If a film is arrogant enough to say “Look, they are SUPPOSED to be dreadful”, it should at least try and explain how they manage to get work.

Their agent sends them to Morocco for a residency in a posh hotel, and within seconds of landing Hoffman has his passport taken by Adjani (who flashes a boob to prove she’s a woman, rather than, y’know, showing her face), and Beatty goes on alone. Hoffman is accosted by Grodin’s slimy CIA agent to do…stuff… plot stuff. There’s a map which fortells of two people who will bring about upheavel in the area (maybe they were thinking of George Bush and Tony Blair). Adjani has the map, but no one knows where it is. Apparently this map will EXPLODE the region. I thought maps showed you where places are, rather than containing hyroglyphics of revolutionary types. But I’m no expert. maybe screenwriter Elaine May is. Or maybe director Elaine May is. Perhaps the real expert is producer Warren Beatty. Then again, the real expert could indeed be the character played by Adjani. Girlfriend of Beatty.

Do you see? Do you see why this may be a bit too top heavy with chums having a lark, with no one to say “Hey, guys. This isn’t actually very funny”.

Gags come very thin and very slow. There’s a good chuckle early on when Hoffman sings a song called “I’ve Leaving Some Love In My Will” to a couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. But the height of sophisticated comedy (in the maker’s eyes anyway) is to make short, craggy Hoffman the sexy ladies man, and bed-hopping Beatty the nervous, insecure type. Ha.

I can’t remember watching a studio film that was such a mess. It’s truly painful.

“Five million dollars…each?”

It’s hard to see talent like Hoffman, Adjani and Grodin (the best thing in the film, as usual) wasting their time on something like this. Beatty I have little time for. His career is littered with egomanical projects like this, and I feel he should take a lot of the blame for this mess. Most commentators point the finger at May, saying she wasn’t experienced, or tough, enough to handle a project of this magnitude. Beatty was more than capable, as producer, of stepping in and salvaging something from it, but instead he left May alone, shielding her from Columbia who, quite rightly, were wondering when their $50 million, Oscar-winning, Christmas movie was going to be ready.

I honestly can’t remember that much about the plot. There’s a tedious section towards the end where Hoffman pretends to be an Arabic interpreter for some gun runners (one of whom is played by  Warren Clarke in his usual gruff, Yorkshire manner), which leads to the closest the film comes to an action sequence (well, there’s a helicopter), and a tedious slapstick interlude where governments agents from various countries are trying to kill the gruesome twosome in a busy market and end up wiping themselves out.

The market provides the background for another supposedly ‘hilarious’ scene. Hoffman has been told by the CIA to go to the market, find a man called Mohammed (pffft) and ask him to sell him a ‘blind camel’ (oh, stop!). You’ll never guess what happens…

Many bad movies, like those discussed on this very blog, are given excuses due to budget, casting, inexprienced film-makers, and so on. Ishtar has no such excuses.  I think it’s telling that the story behind the film is far more interesting than the film itself.

And as such, and I don’t say this lightly, it genuinely is one of the worst films I have ever seen.

 

 

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