There are two prevailing narratives surrounding Ishtar: that it is either a colossally unfunny folly deserving of its box-office death or a misunderstood masterpiece for which audiences just weren’t ready. I wish I could make a conclusive case either way, but my honest experience of the movie — nearly 30 years after its release — was somewhere in the middle. I found Ishtar to be a lovable misfire, an undeniably messy movie that you nonetheless want to treasure just for its oddball existence.
Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty star as clueless, aspiring songwriters in New York City, and the film’s first third is a sweetly hilarious depiction of their passion and their folly. We hear, over the opening credits, one of their collaborative writing sessions, as the two stumble and stammer their way toward a horrible number called “Dangerous Business.” (Paul Williams wrote the music and lyrics here, while writer-director Elaine May contributed lyrics to many of the movie’s other original numbers.) One of my favorite moments comes when Lyle (Beatty) impulsively spits out an insipid lyric suggestion and Chuck (Hoffman) responds, “Shit man, when you’re on you’re on!”
This is the key to their relationship: no one in the world truly thinks Lyle is talented except Chuck, and vice versa. As long as they have each other, they don’t need an audience or a record deal. (They’d like both, but still.) Ishtar is, at heart, a romance about two supremely untalented people who are perfect for each other. At one point, when Chuck is distraught over the state of his musical career, Lyle encourages him, “It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age.” Love is blind, indeed.
Almost everything in this first section works, from the performances to the costuming — I love the ’80s headbands — to details like the busboy who keeps running into Chuck’s piano while he’s trying to perform at a restaurant. (No one is listening anyway.) If there is a recurring visual motif for the film, it’s the parade of faces in the duo’s audiences staring with their mouths agape, in disbelief that a musical performance could be this unwittingly bad.
No one in the world truly thinks Lyle is talented except Chuck, and vice versa.
That changes when Chuck and Lyle accept a gig in North Africa, where the guests of a Western hotel are so desperate for anything remotely American that they mistake whatever it is the two are doing onstage as entertainment. Have Chuck and Lyle found heaven? Perhaps, but then they’re interrupted by a CIA plot — a development that derails their gig and very nearly the movie.
There are some basic structural problems with May’s decision to take Ishtar in this direction, first among them being that the increasingly convoluted scenario requires Chuck and Lyle to follow their own separate subplots. And neither Hoffman nor Beatty is as funny alone as they are together. There are also comic bits here that just don’t work at all, including a long sequence of the pair lost in the desert, or another where Chuck is forced to translate for a group of gun smugglers. In these scenes and elsewhere, the comedy relies too much on the scenario, rather than on Chuck and Lyle’s relationship. You can sense both Hoffman and Beatty straining for laughs that came much more easily earlier.
Not that the second half is a total loss. Charles Grodin, the star of May’s The Heartbreak Kid, shows up as a smarmy yet easily flummoxed CIA operative. A scene in which Chuck and Lyle try to lead a blind camel through a crowded market is a clever bit of slapstick. And post-Iraq invasion, it’s also understandable that Ishtar is given retroactive political points as a satire of misguided American interventionism.
Despite its rough patches, Ishtar also concludes with a reward: Chuck and Lyle performing a finished version of “Dangerous Business” back at that North African hotel. It’s more polished this time, but no less awful, and replete with the duo’s usual microphone bonks and ridiculous costumes. Most of the American soldiers who have come to the performance watch in confusion and revulsion, but one woman in the audience is deeply moved. I guess if I have to pick a side, I’m with her.