Ishtar (1987), a recap (part 9 of 9): The most honest film ever released comes to an end
Previously on Ishtar: In what thankfully was our final installment of aimless desert wandering, Chuck and Lyle improvised charming ditties about poverty and incest, then discovered they actually had the MapGuffin the whole time. But they may have learned this too late, because the CIA is currently moving in on them with a helicopter, as well as a “battle gunship” (basically, just a slightly more intimidating-looking helicopter). Can they be saved by Abdul and Shirra magically arriving at their exact location in the vast, empty desert?
The middle eastern “action” music kicks in again as the helicopter and battle gunship get closer. On the ground, Shirra hands out weapons to everybody. She gives a gun to Abdul, telling him to “aim and fire”, and then hands a grenade launcher to Chuck and instructs him on how to operate it. As she herself goes with a lovely shoulder-mounted rocket launcher for the occasion, the four lie in wait behind the jeep for the choppers to get closer.
As they wait, Shirra delivers an inspiring speech to the group. “I have brought about your deaths. We will die together.” Okay, not really as rousing as it could have been, but a good try nonetheless. She gives the signal, and they all stand up and start firing at the helicopters, and explosions are going off in the air, and suddenly this has turned into the misbegotten Rambo sequel you never knew existed.
The gunship pilot yells, “Holy shit!” and veers away. Shirra fires a rocket, which comes extremely close to the other helicopter. Sabotage Guy calmly radios Harrison to tell him the “action is no longer covert”, and then he suddenly freaks out and screams that the people they’re firing on are “armed to the teeth!!”
Back in the control room, Harrison immediately radios back that the “mission’s over”, and tells his men to get out of there quickly, while they can still say they “made a mistake”. And that’s it. The CIA was so determined to kill Chuck and Lyle that they gave up within ten seconds of the two guys firing back. But frankly, I’m not about to complain about the filmmakers figuring out a way to end this thing as quickly as possible.
Back in the desert, the helicopter turns tail, and we see our heroes celebrate while Chuck makes use of the one F-bomb allotted to each and every PG-13 movie, yelling “Fuck you!” at the retreating choppers. And then Lyle yells out, “Fuck you twice!” Wow, they got two F-bombs! That’s the kind of pull Beatty and Hoffman had back in the day. (But then again, we did see a naked boob in an earlier scene, and there’s no way that would ever make it into a PG-13 movie nowadays.) The two choppers fly off to cheesy victory synthesizer music as the camera pulls back from our heroes, looking triumphant, and then the shot ends with one last glimpse of the blind camel.
And reportedly, what we just witnessed was originally meant to be a much bigger battle sequence, but Elaine May was terrified over having to direct a huge action scene for the first time in her career. She kept putting it off, and putting it off, until things got to the point where Beatty nearly had to fire her and take over directing the movie himself. But eventually, Beatty and May worked things out, and scaled the battle way down to what we see here and everyone was able to get through it.
And then a shot of the all-important map pulls back to reveal the thing is now in the office of agent Marty Freed, who’s on the phone with Jim Harrison. Apparently, Chuck and Lyle mailed the map to Marty to ensure their safety, along with a written list of demands. Marty reads off the first demand, which is “social reforms in Ishtar as dictated by Shirra Assel”, and the second is “an immediate live-in-concert album from Rogers & Clarke at the Chez Casablanca” to be “financed and promoted” by the CIA.
Cut to Harrison in a nondescript office saying he can make that happen. He hangs up and gets on the phone with someone else to talk about those social reforms, which means they might have to get rid of the Emir, which Harrison isn’t all that worried about. No, his real concern is, “We’ve got to actually back an album with these guys!”
Then a red phone on the desk rings, and Harrison picks it up, and we hear yelling on the other side, and Harrison immediately denies they were shooting at two Americans in the desert. Is this supposed to be Reagan? Because I don’t think the man ever spoke louder than a whisper in his entire eight years in office. Harrison promises to “look into that” and hangs up, then picks up another phone and orders someone to get together an Army battalion to be an “enthusiastic audience” for Chuck and Lyle’s concert.
Cut to a crowd of military men filing into Chez Casablanca for the concert, while we hear Harrison in voiceover talking to a general named Westlake, saying a whole lot of unnecessary stuff that just repeats what we already know. Harrison says that if anything happens to Chuck and Lyle, the “map goes to the KGB”.
Inside Chez Casablanca, the place is packed, and Army guys are up on stage doing a sound check. A waiter drops a bottle, which shatters on the floor, causing our CIA agents (including Alex Hyde-White and Sabotage Guy and… um… did Matt Frewer quit this movie after the outdoor market scene?) to nervously jump up while reaching for their guns.
Harrison and General Westlake are sitting at one of the tables. Harrison repeats again that if “Emir Yousef accepts Shirra Assel’s reforms” and they “back” Chuck and Lyle’s albums, they promise not to sell the map to anyone else. The General looks a bit dismayed at what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Cut to Shirra Assel, all dolled up as she sits at a table and introduces herself to Marty Freed as “their friend”. Accompanying her is Abdul, who introduces himself as “their guide”. Marty introduces himself as “their agent” and also talks about how he has jet lag. Good to know. And it would appear all is well between the guys and Shirra, so I guess coming to their rescue out in the desert made up for almost getting them killed out there in the first place.
And now music plays, and it’s time for the concert to begin. An announcer declares, “By popular demand, Rogers & Clarke!”, and the two men jump up on stage in white tuxedos and red glittery headbands. One Army guy stands in the crowd yelling at people to applaud as the two men sing that song they wrote on the plane. “Hello, Ishtar, you’re more than a country, you’re a state of mind! Hello, Morocco, you’re equally pretty, you’re never gonna get left behind!”
Over at a table, General Westlake looks less than enthused. Harrison assures him, “They wrote the music and the lyrics!”
Chuck and Lyle sing, “Here in Morocco, I found the spirit of Ishtar!” And then we cut to the two men doing a stripped down doo-wop number, with Chuck playing an upright bass and the harmonica, while Lyle sings, “I look to Mecca, and I see, the place where we live and the funny old tree”. Harrison looks at the general and happily says, “That’s the single!”
And now the guys are wearing straw hats as they sing, “And that a lawnmower can do all that, it’s amazing”. Which is followed by the headache-inducing lyric, “I can see her standing in the backyard of my mind, she cracks her knuckles and the scab that’s on her knee won’t go away.” There’s a shot of Army guys looking very confused as the men continue with, “I can see the woman, waiting in her eyes, and I can see the love, but I can’t see the Brooklyn Dodgers in LA!” And to really drive whatever the point of this is home, Chuck mimes swinging a baseball bat with his microphone while Lyle provides a “crack of the bat” sound effect with his mouth.
And now they’re doing a slow number. Chuck sings, “I feel so small when I look at the stars. How big is Venus?” And then Lyle comes in with a weirdly high voice and sings, “How big is Mars?” Chuck continues: “I feel so small when I look at the sky. How big is Heaven?” And then Lyle adds, “How big am I?” Nope, not touching that one, sorry.
The General gives Harrison a look, and he smiles back. That one Army guy yells at everyone to “Applaud!” And then some obviously deranged person in the crowd yells, “Encore!” We get a close-up of Sabotage Guy/Cop Mustache in the audience for some reason, and then Chuck and Lyle soak up the applause and hug each other.
They direct spotlights into the audience, right onto Shirra, as Chuck says their next song is for “a very lovely lady of the left”. The General mutters, “This is unbelievable.” Wait, now it’s unbelievable? Marty has his face behind his hands as he peeks out with one eye.
Shirra then has a tear streaming down her face as the music starts, and Marty asks her why she’s crying. Shirra props her head up in her hands and says, “I think they’re wonderful!” Which is why she tried to arrange horrible deaths for both of them in the desert, I suppose. Also, which one of the two guys gets her? Or will they be sharing her going forward?
The song that Chuck and Lyle are performing as an encore, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to the few people who actually remember the beginning of the film, is “Dangerous Business”. The camera slowly zooms in as Chuck plays the bongos and Lyle plays the keyboard and they sing that “Telling the truth can be dangerous business, honest and popular don’t go hand in hand!” If that’s the case, then there’s no doubt that Ishtar is the most honest film ever released.
In the next line, we learn that “If you admit that you can play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock ‘n’ roll band!” And then they get to the chorus of, “But we can… sing our hearts out!” And an entire invisible band joins in with them, and you can tell this song was pretty heavily inspired by “You Can Call Me Al” from Paul Simon’s then-recent Graceland album, which fits in with the whole Simon and Garfunkel running gag of the movie.
The song goes on, and there are many more brilliant lines here, but perhaps none more brilliant than, “Because life is the way we audition for God, let us pray that we all get the job!”
And then they get to one last chorus of “But we can sing…” And then a whole choir joins in with them, as we freeze frame on Chuck and Lyle, and the picture gets cropped and becomes the cover of Rogers & Clarke In Concert – Live!, and then we pull back to find the album is on sale (at a “special low price”) at that Sam Goody in Manhattan seen in the beginning of the film.
The song continues as the credits start rolling, and after “Dangerous Business” fades out, we get a reprise of Chuck and Lyle performing “Little Darlin’”. And honestly, I think the closing credits are probably one of the few entertaining aspects of this film, as we finally get to learn all the titles of the awful songs we’ve been hearing over the course of the movie.
There’s “Dangerous Business”, “Love in My Will”, “Software”, and “Wardrobe of Love”, which I’m sure you can easily recall. There’s “Portable Picnic”, which is the song Lyle was singing when he was the ice cream man. There are two songs called “The Echo Song” and “Carol” which I don’t remember. “That a Lawnmower Can Do All That” was briefly heard during the ending concert. Then there’s “Half Hour Song” and “Sitting on the Edge of My Life”, which I’m pretty sure were both improvised on the spot by Beatty and Hoffman. “Hello Ishtar”, which we heard on the plane into Ishtar and at the concert. “I Look to Mecca” and “How Big Am I?” were heard during the concert. “Harem Girl”? No idea about that one. And finally, there’s “My Lips on Fire” and “Have Not Blues”, improvised as Chuck and Lyle were wandering through the desert.
The credits also mention a soundtrack available on Capitol Records and Tapes, but don’t go looking for it on iTunes, because it doesn’t exist. There were plans to put out an album that would feature professionally produced versions of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty singing all these godawful songs, but obviously that idea got scrapped when the movie tanked. At least a few copies of a promotional single were pressed, however, featuring Hoffman performing “Little Darlin’”, and Beatty singing “Portable Picnic” on the flip side, the latter of which you can hear below (that is, if you have the stomach for it).
And that was Ishtar, a movie that’s only remembered for how hard it bombed. While it’s clear that many, many things went wrong during the making of this movie, probably the biggest problem here is that the script (or whatever the actors were improvising their dialogue from) for this alleged comedy doesn’t contain any actual jokes. There’s a mildly amusing air about the first act, but it totally dissipates when the movie changes location to Morocco. I can’t say for sure why the movie runs out of steam so quickly, but in general, when you’re making a purported culture clash comedy, it helps to at least have some familiarity with the culture you’re clashing with. This is a movie that expects us to believe them crazy Arabs would get themselves all worked up over some ancient map because it contains a prophecy that vaguely resembles current events, and then just gets dumber from there.
Years later, Dustin Hoffman would reveal that he when he initially read the script for Ishtar, he turned it down. He felt the film should have had the two main characters remain in New York City, and while I’m not exactly sure what Chuck and Lyle would have gotten up to in that version of the story, it probably would have been vastly better than the movie we actually got.
Also, with all due respect to Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman: they’re great actors, but they’re not exactly renowned for their comedic abilities. I realize they’re the reason the movie got made, but just imagine a version of Ishtar that starred, say, Rick Moranis as Chuck and Chevy Chase as Lyle. Two actual comic actors might have had a shot at selling these lackluster jokes, whereas Beatty and Hoffman didn’t stand a chance.
But unlike the previous titleholder of “biggest flop ever”, Heaven’s Gate, it’s hard to say that the failure of Ishtar had any far-reaching consequences in Hollywood, primarily because by 1987 (as opposed to 1980, when Gate came out), there were more ancillary markets like home video and pay cable where a movie could make its money back following its theatrical run. HBO had already bought the rights to Ishtar before filming even began, which surely helped dull the sting of this movie almost getting beaten at the box office in its opening weekend by a horror film with a no-name cast and a budget less than a tenth of what it cost to make Ishtar.
And yet, just like Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar at least partly motivated the studio’s parent company to get out of the moviemaking business. Coca-Cola sold off Columbia Pictures just a few months after the release of Ishtar, though at the time, the company insisted it had nothing to do with the negative press surrounding the film, and that they were simply looking to refocus on their core business of inducing tooth decay and diabetes around the world.
There definitely wasn’t much lasting impact on the careers of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in the aftermath of Ishtar. The following year, Hoffman would star in Rain Man and win an Oscar for it, and Beatty went straight into directing and starring in Dick Tracy (which also co-starred Hoffman as the villain Mumbles), which was a solid hit in 1990 despite its rep as a box office disappointment.
It was a much different story for Elaine May, who never directed another movie again. But given the way things went with this film, as well as her previous efforts, that was probably for the best. My own theory is that May likely has some form of OCD that prevents her from saying a shot or a scene is good enough, or being able to say “cut” and move on to the next thing. That’s the only way to explain millions of feet of film being exposed for these relatively short and inconsequential comedies. And yes, lots of directors have been known for their insane exactitude, but May’s problem was she carried on like a total perfectionist and yet, in the case of Ishtar, she still couldn’t put together a movie that was any good.
But this wasn’t the end of Elaine May’s career. She wrote a couple of screenplays for films directed by her old friend and improv comedy partner Mike Nichols, specifically the La Cage aux Folles remake The Birdcage, and the thinly-veiled Bill Clinton fictionalization Primary Colors. The latter earned her an Oscar nomination, her first since Heaven Can Wait. (And coincidentally, Warren Beatty was also up for a screenplay Oscar that year for Bulworth.) So it would seem that even in the case of a film as historically awful as Ishtar, Hollywood can learn to forgive and forget.