At which point we have to learn a thing or two about “the worst films ever”. Namely, we have to learn that the so-called “worst films ever” are sometimes indistinguishable from “this film was mis-marketed, was generally unlucky, and happened to fail at the box office”. Sometimes “worst” doesn’t really mean “worst”. Sometimes it doesn’t mean “bad”. Sometimes it means “pretty decent but a bit much and a difficult film to understand altogether”. Sometimes the film gods do not shine on everything that deserves it. Sometimes they just look the other way.
This isn’t to say that Elaine May’s Ishtar is some sort of misunderstood modern masterpiece. But when it is in the business of being an Elaine May film, driven by her own impulsive fixations rather than the need to justify its budget, it fires on all cylinders. It isn’t perfect, but this story of aspiringly awful lounge singers Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) traveling to Morocco for quick buck, only to end up in the middle of a US power-play for control in the ever-fluctuating Middle East, is a temperamental film to say the least. Which undoubtedly means, even if accidentally, it has its moments. Thus, back to “awful lounge singers” we go. When May is focused on the specifics of these two guys and their flailing, failing middle-aged egos beset by incompetence and unawareness in equal measure, she is on fine, and even masterful, form.
It isn’t quite Woody Allen, but May has a way about men in crisis and caustic satire aimed at these men, and the opening act of Ishtar is simply a bigger-budgeted, slightly warmer variation on her usual successes. It is no surprise that this material works so well; it is her bread-and-butter as a filmmaker, and her pitiless naturalism evokes a certain elegant immaturity in these two guys who are completely unaware of their own ineptitude. The opener, blindly introducing us to one of their aspiring numbers as we watch the credits, is a hoot, and the harsh edits on the two men moving from song to song over time in montage are even better. With each cut, we watch them not so much advancing in their career as we expect, but losing their sense of humility and growing increasingly pitiful (May subtly mocking the idea of montage writ large in the process). May understands just the right amount of empathy with them so that the film never loses its critical, jagged edge without ever stepping over the line to cruel.
The problem lies in May feeling the need to move away from herself and into a more populist variant of big-’80s pop-blasted satire and zippy, Raiders-speckled action-adventure. To sum things up, Chuck gets involved with American Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), who is a pastiche of the smooth-talking Wall Street business magnates of the era, and Lyle finds his way with revolutionary freedom fighter Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani). The two lounge singers are soon enough aware of each others’ tangled-up affairs, probably more sure than they are of their own involvements, and they move from failing to preserve their careers to failing to preserve the whole stability of the world, all the while trying to mindlessly figure out where each others’ allegiances lie.
All of this is messy, to say the least, and May is on less sure footing with the political intrigue, although this material isn’t as troubled as her pestering treatment of the indifferent action elements, included seemingly out of obligation, or a desire to court pop-success in the way that every comedy film somehow threw in a healthy dose of antiseptic action during the late ’80s. One would suppose this was her intended entry into the big-time, and she was either pressured or coerced to add a masculine dose to her film. She is at her best exposing men, however, and not pandering to them. Her heart just isn’t in the action, and she rushes through the material to get to the good stuff, of which there is increasingly little as the film moves on (brilliant cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, meanwhile, is given precious little to do throughout). The political satire is fair, but the way the film pursues it – by tying together threads of ’40s screwball, ’50s road-to movies, and ’70s improvisational comedy – expends too much energy circling around better ideas and never finding where it needs to go.
It is a film with a deep-seated identity crisis, left lying around in a liminal space until it eventually loses track of the simple story of two lovable losers that centers its heart. “Political commentary” is all well and good conceptually, but the broad ideas, as they often do, run the risk of running away with the lighter pleasures of the film and losing the characters amidst the pomp and insight (for instance, in a late-film weapon auctioning scene, Hoffman is asked to spout off patently fake Arabic as a joke at the expense of Americans who think they can pretend to be Arabic, but the needs of the story and the broadness of the material end up turning it into a joke at the expense of Arabs and Arabic itself). At least things spike up past the mid-way point, when the two main characters are alone together and bond once again in a few moments of trenchant, low-key humanism. Generally, Ishtar is at its best when it is at its most human, and it is indifferently human from beginning to end.
Through all this, the film’s bed-rocks are Hoffman and Beatty, giving portrayals that are sufficiently likable and genuine enough to invite sympathy but knowingly hopeless and winking enough to still sell the essential stupidity of the characters. Better still, from beginning to end, the two actors never pander. They never mug; every moment comes out of the essence of these two characters, and nothing asks us to doubt that essence. Hoffman is the darker and more combative of the two, and he captures a parody of schlubby Americana always assuming its own false-ruggedness that perfectly sells an implicit critique of males who think they know everything even when they know nothing. Beatty, meanwhile, is asked to play wonders with an endlessly passive character who just can’t understand why no one seems to like him. Even when the film is at its most tepid (and at its worst, it is never less than tepid), even when it is searching aimlessly for a joke or a purpose, these two end up finding it anyway.
At some level, Ishtar is a bit of a disappointment. I mean, “one of the biggest box-office flops of all-time” carries a certain perverse weight, and one expects that it should deliver a circus. It is the least it could do, for the common decency. As it is, however, it is essentially a decent comedy with sparks of genius, although, in the final analysis, most unwieldy genius all in all. It is also very peculiar as an entity in the corporate late ’80s, ultimately playing like a mish-mash of small-time comedy-drama circa 1976 and a huge tentpole piece from the film’s own 1987, hurting for an identity and never once justifying the sheer Gargantua qualities of money thrown its way. It isn’t quite an ambitious masterwork of messiness like the early ’80s New Wave disasters that sunk the entire spirit of American cinema in the ’70s, but it once or twice feels like a distant cousin of this phenomenon. It is as if, May, given the opportunity to finally direct her entry into the big leagues, was given untold amounts of money and insisted on using it all, piling complication onto what ought to be a very lean, snug storyline, and refusing to leave any stone unturned. It is a story as old as time, of an outsider filmmaker going pop and losing their way like a child with a pile of Christmas presents so ornamented and ostentatious and grand that it crumbles and swallows her up. It is a shame, for the opening bits of Ishtar, when May is just being light, sweet, bitter, acidic old May, it is on such fine form.
So how good is it really?: 3/5 (a solid, intermittently brilliant, ungainly, often hollow, confused, occasional-masterpiece)
But how “good” is it?: 1/5 (far too safe and sane to work as an example of the good bad movie form)