Saoirse’s Cult Corner #17: Ishtar (1987)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week, we take a look at 80s flop, Ishtar.

I first remember Ishtar as a punchline. By this time I had already seen Possession so I understood the majesty that was Isabelle Adjani but still. I had never heard of Ishtar or even Elaine May until, may years after the video’s release I was bingeing Red Letter Media because I still cared about those old farts in those days and I came across their special episode about the Star Wars Holiday Special, (I’ve tried very hard not to think about Star Wars lately and I’ve ruined it, damn), where they compare the premise of Ishtar negatively to that movie. They then play the trailer as if this is meant to be self-evidently shit, and they overlay the face of George Lucas himself poking in, as if to say, I could have done better than this. I remember this being one of my favourite moments in all of Red Letter Media history, and when going back to watch the section of the video for research, I see I left a like on the video. I feel so ashamed now, years later, after I completely lost interest in the smug wankery of Red Letter Media, discovering that Ishtar is actually, really, really, really good.

It’s strange, most of the trailer clips that are framed by RLM as the most ridiculous and stupid, (Hoffman’s strange yodelling attempt to interpret to the local language at a gun sale, his really naf stage routine with Beaty, and the lines about them being messengers from God and also idiots), are the most charming stuff in the film, and instead of grating, it’s endearing, and relatable, and funny, even in such an exaggerated form as the Hollywood blockbuster comedy. In this film, Elaine May effortlessly weaves bombast, character comedy, and political farce that will somehow evoke both The Naked Gun and Love & Death, (also After Hours a bit, personally).

Ishtar follows two upstart musicians, (Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beaty), who in dire need of a hit travel to the middle east to try to work as musicians in a nightclub there. Upon arrival, they are immediately swept up, ironically StarWars-like, into war and political machinations beyond their wildest comprehension, and all they wanted was a hit song!

There are many other attractive things about Ishtar that we shall get onto, but the main one is shared with Elaine May’s more celebrated piece Mikey & Nicky. Now, I was aware of Mikey & Nicky before Ishtar, again I didn’t know Elaine May was but I had seen the Criterion cover, and just before watching Ishtar, which friends who loved it finally convinced me to do, I was aware that there was a long break after Mikey & Nicky, then Ishtar, then career over. I have since seen Mikey & Nicky and I have this to say. Mikey & Nicky is every bit as great as Ishtar and for similar reasons, but for different audiences. Mikey & Nicky evokes works like Mean Streets, Silkwood, & ironically, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Peter Falk & John Cassavettes going back and forth over a mostly alluded to personal history for most of the movie like de Niro & Keitel in Mean Streets, with the improvisational, loose feel of Cassavettes’ best work as a director. Ishtar takes many of the same fascinations Elaine May has and packages it into a movie that is just endlessly entertaining, and with a few other things on its mind as well. I do not see Mikey & Nicky so much as an innovation on any formula but a wonderful entry into a then-contemporary cinematic lineage. It is an arthouse film, through and through, and it is mainly for an arthouse audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Obviously I think that, I run this column after all. Ishtar too has a troubled friendship at the centre of it, Ishtar however, feels like a film that only Elaine May could have made.

So what do these films have on their mind, and what is unique to Ishtar? Firstly, male friendships. I think May sees a camaraderie in two men who have an imperfect relationship perfectly evading everyone out to get them just by being friends and exploring their relationship together. That is functionally the plot of both movies. That being said, replacing the cynical tone and pretty abusive behaviours that populate Mikey & Nicky are two people who are just really loveable schmucks. The first fifteen minutes of Ishtar are hardly narrative and not at all globe-trotting. It’s essentially an extended montage that just shows you who these two guys are and makes you love them. It’s a whole act in other movies condensed to one of the best pieces of character-driven visual storytelling I have ever seen in a movie, ever. It’s charming, endearing, and a little sad, and it just makes you fall in love with these people. This is a spirit that the rest of the movie is imbued with going forward.

I would be remiss not to talk about the side performances, especially as they’re a great way to talk about what else Ishtar has to say. I want to start with Charles Grodin. One of Grodin’s earliest roles was in Elaine May’s 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid, and they reunite here for one of Grodin’s all-time best performances as CIA agent Jim Harrison, making the invasionist bureaucrat surprisingly rich and charming for such a stubborn and conniving man. Grodin brings an air of, “I know I’m an asshole but my character’s just here for the paycheque and wants to go home”, without ever feeling like he feels like that himself as an actor. We also have Isabelle Adjani as a local revolutionary, and while it’s not as much of a complex performance as Possession she gets to show off a level of charisma outside of just holding your attention, (not to speak ill of Possession, it is literally my favourite performance in any movie by anyone). She is captivating and loveable, and she gets the best line of the movie right at the end, when she looks lovingly on Beatty & Hoffman performing, and looking amazing, backlit, says, “I think they’re wonderful”. At this point she has gone on the same arc we as an audience have, (one of my favourite narrative devices), going from just finding these two guys slightly buffoonish to thinking that maybe we, as an audience, would go all the way to political revolution for them. It’s not like this is a white saviour story either, their role in instigating political change is minimal, they just happen to be there and bounce off the political anarchy around them like rubber balls. Here we see though, what Ishtar is really hacking at. It’s a satire of American interventionism, the American idea that they are the world’s, and really Capitalism’s, saviour and guardian. It’s no coincidence that this came out in the 80s if you know what I mean.

Now you may have been wondering this whole time why I’m talking about this movie here. Now, while this is a big blockbuster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty, it absolutely failed. This is a shame specifically as Beatty wanted to give May an environment where we could truly see her talents. Arguably, we did, but maybe the world wasn’t ready for its messages of male vulnerability and America’s problems overseas. Fundamentally the thesis of the film, like many other great American satires before it, is that a lot of this overseas American tyranny is driven by the same unwillingness to appear vulnerable that defines so much of contemporary male struggle. You can see why a country that had had 6 years of Reagan might not take to that. It has a cult following now, and rightly so, but May’s career was over. This was Beatty giving her a chance for a career that bombed. She was done in Hollywood and her only film after it is a documentary a few years ago about director Mike Nicholls. I haven’t seen it. Ishtar has indeed become a punchline. It’s become a punchline by a lot of smug white men who think they know better and I joined in with them having not seen it. I have no idea if the RLM crew have seen it but a lot of people who do shit on this movie haven’t, and that’s such a damn shame. If there’s a grand thesis I want you to come away from this video with it’s really, don’t get your opinions, any of them, from online people who make YouTube videos, or post columns on an online blog that they founded with their friends just 8 and a half months ago. Go out and discover these movies for yourself, take nothing for granted. Who knows, you might, just might, end up, looking on at Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty making asses of themselves on stage to a loving audience and thinking to yourself, maybe out loud if you’re that involved in the picture, “I think they’re wonderful”.

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