Is it really that bad? Elaine May’s Ishtar

This week I’m writing the first post of what will be on ongoing series where I watch the worst of the worst movies so that you don’t have to! For the first entry into this series, I’m tackling Elaine May’s final foray into directing, Ishtar (1987). Frequently cited on critics’ worst films lists, Roger Ebert described Ishtar as “a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy,” but is it really that bad? The short answer is no, it’s really not the worst movie ever made, but the longer answer requires a bit of background on the film’s origins.

Before she became a writer and director, May got her start in the 1950s as part of an improvisational comedy duo with Mike Nichols. In the 70s, May transitioned to directing, and after completing two comedies and one crime drama, Warren Beatty decided to help her produce a movie. Unfortunately, nearly from the start, problems plagued Ishtar. The real life political strife in the Middle East caused issues with filming. The desert climate affected May’s health poorly and exacerbated the disagreements over creative differences between May, Beatty, and co-star Dustin Hoffman.

The budget for the film ballooned, ultimately reaching around $51 million, and the studio lost faith in it. Leaks about May’s poor attitude and all the other difficulties of production appeared in the press long before anyone had a chance to see the film, so that when it finally premiered it only made $4 million in its first weekend.

Disregarding the film’s troubled start; does the film itself truly deserve all the hate? Ishtar stars Beatty and Hoffman as unsuccessful songwriting partners, Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clark, who accidentally become enmeshed in political espionage after accepting a gig in Morocco. Sure, the premise is ridiculous, but that’s true of a large number of classic comedies. Some critics say the film doesn’t work because Beatty and Hoffman were cast against type with Beatty playing the bumbling doofus and Hoffman as the suave charmer, but I don’t see this as a detriment at all. Beatty and Hoffman both play their roles with such devotion and sincerity, and watching the film today when they’re not quite the giant stars they were then removes those preconceptions.

Beatty and Hoffman are at their best in the early parts of Ishtar when the characters are just struggling songwriters in New York getting to know one another. These scenes, and really all of Ishtar, are classic cringe comedy. The songs of Rogers and Clark are so bad they’re good. Cringe comedy can be seen all over the current television schedule (think The Office for example), but was not quite as popular when Ishtar premiered. This likely attributes to its status as a bad movie. If you don’t enjoy comedy that makes you wince with embarrassment, you’re not going to like Ishtar.

rogers and clark

Check out the song “Dangerous Business.” You won’t be sorry, or you will be because it’s very bad.

As the film goes on the plot unravels quite a bit as the two men accidentally come to possess a map wanted by rebels and the CIA. The film ends with a small firefight in the desert between Rogers and Clark and the United States CIA. The guys make a deal with the CIA and agree to surrender the map in exchange for a record deal. The movie ends just as it begins, with Rogers and Clark performing one of their songs. These are the parts of Ishtar that I could watch over and over. Seeing Hoffman and Beatty sing intentionally terrible songs with utter conviction is truly comedic brilliance.

Ultimately, Ishtar does not deserve to be called the worst movie ever made. It’s not the worst. It’s not the best either, but as I saw at the New Beverly Theater on Monday night, it clearly has a devoted audience that loves it for the mess it is. And there’s certainly no other film like it.

It’s immensely unfortunate that it killed May’s directing career, considering there are countless male directors who helmed larger flops than hers, and they are still given a second chance. She once said, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” If you haven’t seen this movie, I have to recommend that you do. I can’t promise that you’ll love it, but it’s funnier than many people would lead you to believe. Its reputation alone earned it a spot in film history and should earn it a spot on your watch list.

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