I want you to take what I’m about to say very seriously.

Remember when you were a kid and you were out to dinner with your parents or grandparents at some semi-high end restaurant and because you were too young to read they ordered for you and when the food came you didn’t want it because it looked unusual and they said, “Try it, you might like it” or “You never know until you try”? And then you tried it and, amazingly, you actually liked it? Remember that?

Well, Ishtar.

Like I said, I don’t want to joke about this. Ishtar has been the subject of many earned and unearned punch lines for a very, very long time, but of the laughing, how many have actually seen the movie? And among those who have seen it, who can actually claim to remember it? Surely not many; those who saw Ishtar when it was originally released in 1987 are likely to recall its highly-publicized box office problem (which I don’t want to get into) better than the picture itself. And because Ishtar never became available on Region 1 DVD, it’s been difficult for the ambivalent or even antagonistic to revisit their decades-old opinions, not to mention the new generation – the one without the Ishtar baggage – to give the movie a fresh look.

All of a sudden that’s changed. Now that has made the film free and available, we might be able to look again, or should I say, for the first time. For Ishtar is not a film that needs to be “rediscovered,” it’s a film that needs to be given a chance.

But let’s be clear: I can’t advocate for the entire picture. Ishtar is no lost gem like Elaine May’s A New Leaf or Mikey and Nicky, which truly are lost gems. It’s simply one half of a very funny movie. In that half, two struggling songwriters (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) stretch themselves to the very limits of their creative and emotional capacity. This is New York City and they just want a chance. Of course they have no chance and seem silly even for trying, but it doesn’t matter. Hoffman and Beatty are so good – on their own and together – that no matter how ridiculous their characters appear, the strength of their dream, which they handle with total, committed seriousness, keeps them credible.

And they have chemistry, real chemistry. Watching Ishtar, especially its opening moments, you can see Elaine May was thinking in terms of the Lemmon and Matthau tradition, and in that sense, the pairing of Hoffman and Beatty is fascinating. What other comic duo in the history of the movies has their dramatic pedigree? Even before they appear, you can hear – in voiceover over the opening credits – the care and attention to detail Hoffman and Beatty have put into building their relationship. It comes across as a shared facility, a mutual resourcefulness – the kind that stems from years and years of collaboration. It’s a marriage.

So love it, hate it, like it. But try it. Twenty years later, when it comes to a picture like Ishtar, its better to have an opinion than a joke.



4 responses to “Amuse-Bouche?

  1. I was a freshman at Wesleyan when it came out. I distinctly remember Jeanine Basinger saying she liked ISHTAR. I never saw it myself, but now, reading this, I want to. Another huge-budget flop of a movie from that era that became the butt of jokes, but which I actually thought was very funny, was HUDSON HAWK.

    • I’m with you on Hudson Hawk. There’s so much to be admired in these movies, it’s sad to see them marginalized. Better to distinguish between floppo flops – Myra Breckenridge and Waterworld – movies with little or nothing to redeem them, and worthwhile disappointments, films that didn’t live up to the hype, but are full of goodness. Ishtar’s one of those. The opening credits alone should sell anyone on it.

  2. Thank you for this. I have always maintained – from a position of some authority as a working singer-songwriter in NYC of the era in which this film was released, who in fact worked as part of a duo for a number of years – that the first act of this movie is priceless. Things only start to go south when they actually reach Ishtar-land… which kind of says it all, I guess.

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