Ishtar (1987): a recap (part 2 of 9)
Previously on Ishtar: Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke were two terrible singer-songwriters and completely oblivious to that fact. Despite a total lack of talent, they were able to find an agent, but that agent was only able to score them gigs in the most godforsaken hellholes on earth. After simultaneously getting dumped by their significant others, plus a wacky suicide attempt, Lyle and Chuck decided to take their act to Morocco.
A shot of the blazing sun introduces us to the fictional country of the title, with a caption informing us that we’re in Ishtar and also “near the Moroccan border”.
A big gong is heard on the soundtrack as we witness an archeological dig happening out in the desert. A vaguely Middle Eastern-looking guy unearths a box, which contains some sort of cloth parchment. He gets excited and immediately calls out to “Professor Barnes”.
Cut to that night at a campsite. In one of the tents, Professor Barnes and the guy who found the parchment discuss what he discovered. Barnes asks “Omar” if this is “really a map of Ishtar?” Wait, so is Ishtar a country, or a secret island full of pirate treasure? Are maps of the place really that hard to come by?
Omar tells the professor that this map is an incredible find, and he knows it’s authentic because he’s “proficient in 7th Century Kufic”. But don’t ask him about 8th Century Kufic, because that’s way beyond his level of expertise. Omar goes on to explain that the writing on the map contains a prophecy. “It speaks of a time of upheaval when two messengers will appear in Ishtar!” Upon which time the “poor and lonely will rise up”, and to really hammer this home, he’s emphatic about how “uncanny” it is that the map talks about “two messengers!” Right, we got it, two messengers, and the two stars of our movie are currently on their way to the Middle East, I think we all know where this is going.
Barnes calls him a “fool” for believing all this, and warns that what they’ve found is a map “which could start a holy war that would enflame the entire Middle East!” And we don’t sure want that. I mean, just imagine what the Middle East would be like if people there were all enflamed and stuff. Barnes begins to talk about how Ishtar is on “the brink of revolution”, but he stops when they hear someone outside the tent eavesdropping.
Barnes quietly tells Omar to take the map and hide it, and then a gunshot rings out, and we get an abrupt cut to a guy in a turban with a gun, and more guys running around, and all kinds of random chaos going on in the camp. Omar hops into a jeep and drives off, and we see him drive until morning and finally reach a city. He parks in front of a motel, runs up to a room, and unfolds the map.
As another jeep pulls up behind Omar’s jeep, we get a shot of Omar doing something with the map, accompanied by clipping and ripping noises, but we don’t get a clear view of what he’s doing. Soon, he’s on the phone with his sister Shirra, played by French actress and two-time Oscar nominee Isabelle Adjani.
And if we’re still going with the Hope and Crosby analogy, Adjani is going to be the Dorothy Lamour of this film. Also, at the time, Warren Beatty was dating her (because of course he was), which reportedly contributed in no small part to all the tension on the set.
Omar tells Shirra he’s hidden the map, but he doesn’t want to say where it is over the phone. But before they can make plans to meet, he senses someone approaching and goes to investigate.
A guy in a turban bursts into the room and stabs Omar in the stomach. Omar collapses to the ground, and Turban Guy begins searching his bloody body. This is the end for Omar, but even in death, he’s defiant. “You will not find it!” He insists that the only people who will find the map are the “two messengers of God!”
And to make it even more clear who these “two messengers” will be, we smash cut to Chuck and Lyle flying into Ishtar on a small commuter plane. The plane is packed and the two men are sitting across the aisle from each other, and of course, they’re coming up with more terrible songs. Lyle sings, “Hello, Morocco, you’re more than a country, you’re even a state of mind!” Chuck hears this line and goes, “I need a pencil!”
A stewardess comes over the loudspeaker to announce they’re about to begin their descent into Ishtar. So I guess instead of just flying directly into Morocco, Chuck and Lyle are flying into Ishtar and then they’re going to take a… bus, or a car, or something into Morocco. We never find out.
Cut to a close-up of Chuck and Lyle’s passports getting stamped with “ISHTAR”. And during this, the soundtrack gives us an instrumental version of that “Hello Morocco” song they just wrote. That was fast.
Now they’re in the airport, and we get a sense of what the country of Ishtar is like from announcements over the airport PA saying things like “a military curfew is in effect throughout Ishtar”, and so forth. Lyle walks off to buy a cup of coffee, and after he leaves, Chuck sees a teenage boy in a turban, staring and smiling at him. Chuck gets uncomfortable and moves away, while still singing to himself.
And that’s when Shirra suddenly appears in front of him. She’s dressed in a somewhat similar fashion to the teenage boy, so the barely perceptible joke here is that Chuck thinks the clearly adult woman talking to him is actually a teenage boy. Chuck immediately pretends he’s here with a woman, saying she’s in the bathroom. Shirra then asks for his help, and a nervous Chuck responds, “I’m very flattered, but I’m straight!” Yes, he not only thinks the obvious woman with the obviously female voice is a teenage boy, but also that said boy is gay and trying to pick up men in an airport.
Chuck goes into a whole spiel about how “I respect your way of life” and “that doesn’t mean that mine is any better or any worse”. To stop him from prattling on, Shirra decides to prove she’s a woman. And she does it in the most cringe-worthy way possible: she lifts up her shirt and flashes her boob.
Even putting aside the absurd notion of a presumably devout Muslim woman flashing her tits in public, I really can’t imagine who thought this was funny. But it gets worse and much more creepy, as a stunned Chuck stares at her chest and declares, “Look at… what you have!”
Chuck keeps staring at her chest (isn’t he supposed to be a ladies man? Why would one naked boob turn him into a drooling 13-year-old?) as Shirra begs him to do a favor for her. But first, she shamelessly flatters him by saying he looks like “a man who’s not afraid of adventure. Perhaps even welcomes it.”
Shirra says she’s a “a dead woman” if she doesn’t get to Marrakech today (and to make things easier, I’ll just inform all my fellow American public high school graduates that Marrakech is a city in Morocco). She wants Chuck’s passport, jacket, and also to exchange suitcases with him, but Chuck resists, saying he’s supposed to be in Marrakech by Saturday.
She assures him that’s more than enough time for the American embassy to issue him a new passport, and they can meet up again tonight in Marrakech. She warns him not to tell anyone, “Not even your wife,” but Chuck is suddenly more than happy to admit he’s not married.
She asks his name, and he says, “Hawk. It’s short for ‘The Hawk’.” Um… sure. “There was a little incident with a gang, you know, a lucky shot… The name just stuck.”
Shirra thinks “The Hawk” is a “very bold name” and also a “brave” name. She peers over her sunglasses at him, wanting to know, “Does the Hawk fly?”
Well, apparently the Hawk does indeed fly, because Lyle comes back to find Chuck wearing Shirra’s jacket. Chuck pretends he just bought it, and Lyle says it’s nice, but he knows he’d “look like a truck in that jacket.” And then without any buildup, Chuck yells out that his passport is gone. But he tells Lyle not to panic, because he can just go to the embassy and get a new one.
Cut to the two guys at the embassy being told there’s no possible way of getting issued a new passport in Ishtar. Embassy Guy says, “You’re lucky the planes are flying!” He also tells them the country is on “the brink of civil war”. Lyle completely loses it, saying it’s “the end” and they’re going to be fired and end up stuck in Ishtar with no jobs.
In response, Chuck puts on an even more dramatic act, screaming, “Oh my God! What have I done?” as he leaps up and pounds on the wall. Lyle is now the one trying to calm him down, but Chuck says that Lyle has to go to Marrakech without him. He says to “do a single until I get there”, advising him to “sing Simon and Garfunkel. You’re a big talent!”
Also in this scene: when Chuck pounds on the wall, one of the tiles on the wall falls off, revealing a hole leading into the room next door. And in what passes for a funny bit in this movie, the two embassy guys struggle to put the tile back in place the whole time Chuck and Lyle are talking.
And so, Lyle decides to go to Marrakech, because we next find Chuck outside the embassy trying to hail a taxi. And there continue to be announcements about the military curfew in Ishtar, and how “All persons on the streets after dark are subject to search and arrest.”
Chuck finally flags down a taxi and freaks out when the driver wants “twenty hundred klimsas” to take him to a hotel. When he gets to the hotel, he freaks out when a bellhop tries to take his bags, because he doesn’t have enough for a tip. They have a whole bit about the bellhop trying to take his bags, and Chuck wanting to carry his own bags, and finally he again yells, “Oh, God! What have I done?” Which is probably Dustin Hoffman speaking out of character, actually.
Chuck gets to his hotel room, and is immediately visited by an American in a suit who introduces himself as Jim Harrison (he’s played by Charles Grodin, who previously starred in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid). Harrison says he heard there was another American in the hotel and figured he’d stop by and treat him to dinner.
Cut to the two men in a restaurant having dinner, which is of course a big messy pile of ethnic-looking food that they eat with their hands. Chuck is telling Harrison all about his alleged music career, and how “all the big record companies” want to sign them, which is why they’re “refining our songs”. But because they don’t want to “get ripped off by people like Simon and Garfunkel, and you know, Springsteen”, they’re doing it in Morocco.
Harrison acts very enthused to be meeting someone in “show business”, and asks Chuck for an autograph for his kid. But when he holds out a piece of paper for Chuck to sign, he asks him to make it out “To Jim”. Chuck signs his name and compliments the pen, and Harrison tells him to keep it. Plot point!
Chuck then asks what Harrison does, and he says he’s with the CIA. He explains that “the communists are trying to instigate a coup against the Emir and take over Ishtar”, but Chuck obviously hasn’t got a clue what he’s talking about. Harrison says whenever he meets an American here, he tells him to “keep his eyes and ears open for us” in exchange for a small payment. He talks about how “harmless conversations” can sometimes be the first step in “recruiting agents for left-wing organizations.”
He then goes through a hypothetical spiel about an American arriving in Ishtar, only to have a guy come up talking about “poverty and injustice in Ishtar”, in order to “dupe you into becoming an agent for a so-called ‘people’s movement’.” The joke being, of course, that this is exactly what Shirra just did to Chuck at the airport.
Chuck then wonders how much money a person could earn helping out the CIA, and when he’s told it’s $150 a week, the wheels clearly start turning in his head.
And then we get a card saying we’re in Morocco “the next evening”. Cut to a nightclub called “Chez Casablanca” in Marrakech. There’s a sign in the lobby announcing that the nightly act is Rogers & Clarke, but Chuck’s name is crossed out. Inside the club, an announcer says, “And now, from the team of Rogers & Clarke… Rogers!”
Lyle comes out and sits at a piano, telling the crowd that he’s going to “sing a few songs tonight from the Simon and Garfunkel songbook”. Dead silence follows, so Lyle quips, “Hey, I’m glad you like them, too!” He eventually asks for requests, telling the crowd to “call out your favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs”.
Instead, the crowd of mostly American and Japanese tourists starts yelling out the name of old standards like “That’s Amore”, “That Old Black Magic”, “As Time Goes By”, and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. Someone even yells out “Y.M.C.A.”, which I guess is supposed to be funny. Lyle ignores them all and starts singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Everyone gets annoyed at him, and one table of tourists is especially upset about him ignoring their request for “That’s Amore”.
Just then, Chuck walks in, and announces himself to the crowd and starts singing “That’s Amore”. He walks up and joins Lyle on stage and the two start singing “That’s Amore” to the adoration of the crowd, though they’re still terrible and they don’t even seem to be singing the same lyrics.
Cut to later in the set, as Chuck sings a terrible rendition of “Strangers in the Night” with his jacket slung over his shoulder, and he’s even clumsily hitting the microphone stand and causing feedback. And then we cut to them performing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as the whole crowd claps and sings along. They end the show and everyone cheers, thus proving the eternal truism that tourists can be entertained by anything.
As they walk off stage, Lyle asks Chuck how he got here so fast, and Chuck simply says he met a guy “who had pull at the embassy”. The audience is still inexplicably clapping, so Chuck cries out, “Listen to that hand, we’re a hit!” He kisses Lyle on the cheek as they run up to take another bow.
And now they’re at a table in the club, and members of the audience are enthusiastically coming up to personally greet them. Among them is a man who calls himself the “the Caid of Assari”, and he’s especially proud of being the one who requested “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. He hands Lyle his card and says, “Perhaps you would care to entertain at my worthless palace.” What? Why would he call his own palace worthless? Whatever, he never becomes important, so I’m not going to dwell on it.
Then a female tourist walks up to say how much she loved the guys, and Chuck tells Lyle they could “have any woman in this club”. Looking at the women, that doesn’t seem like a major accomplishment. But Lyle is still down, saying, “Not me. Women don’t like me.” He says he’s just going to go to sleep, so Chuck tells him to go to bed, and he’s going to “drive around for a while, try to come down off this high.”
Chuck also whispers to him that “Tomorrow night, we’ll sing our songs.” Is that a promise or a threat? He walks out singing “Dangerous Business” to himself, then gets into an old dusty car and drives off.
And, you know, I don’t want to overthink a comedy too much, but wasn’t the whole point of this movie that the two guys were awful songwriters and awful singers who were determined to succeed despite an utter lack of talent? And now, less than halfway through the movie, they’ve found a place where everyone loves them. Which means we’ve already reached a natural ending point for the film, and yet, we’ve still got another hour of vague motivations and incomprehensible jokes left to go.
Also, why is Lyle still depressed? Isn’t performing for an adoring crowd everything he ever wanted in life?
Well, at least by now you should be getting an idea of just how much this movie loses steam once the action shifts from New York to Morocco. And it only gets worse from here, as you’ll see in part three, coming soon.