I had no idea that attempting to watch one of the biggest flops of the 1980s would be such a difficult task. It’s not that the film was so bad I couldn’t sit through its entirety, though critics have said this would be the case, it’s the fact that it is extremely difficult to find a copy of. The film I am referring to is Ishtar, a 1987 adventure/comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty. I remember hearing about the utter failure of this movie in a film history class in college. I spent the next 5 years casually looking for it. My professor at the time loved the movie, despite the fact that it was so universally abhorred by critics. The espionage aspect of the film couldn’t compare to the intrigue that surrounds the controversy in taste that this movie generates. To some it is a waste of time and talent, stupid and worst of all boring. Yet others (certainly fewer) elevated it to a cult classic. Naturally my curiosity has been piqued all these years, but I could find no legitimate way to watch this movie without buying a region free DVD player and a European DVD release of the film (due to the fact that it was never released on DVD in North America). Even “”Crazy Mike’s” The movie rental store claiming to have all rare DVD’s let me down. Ultimately I succumbed to one of my least favorite ways to watch movies: Youtube.
The film follows Hoffman and Beatty who play two song writers with such passion for their craft that they can think of nothing else. Constantly their characters think of melodies and song lyrics. Their lyrics, however, can be likened to that of a Weird Al Yonkovic song. They’re not great singers, they’re terrible entertainers, but they’re passionate. The two end up in Ishtar where they get caught up on opposite sides of a humorous spy plot that nearly costs them their lives in a a half dozen ways.
The movie nearly crushed writer director Elaine May’s career. To this day she has never directed another movie. The film boasted an elaborate budget, of which only a fraction was made back at the box office, it was universally hated, it currently has a 3.8 out of 10 rating on IMDB. It is one of the biggest mysteries in film history in my opinion. It’s not a great movie by any means, however it’s far from terrible. The lyrics of their songs are hilarious and the performances (particularly Dustin Hoffman’s) are sincere and dedicated. It’s a story that is relate-able to many people. The story of two people that is following their dream, despite the very real fact that they are not very good at what it is they dream to do. Thanks to reality television this is a character we are very well acquainted with. (far more so than when the movie was originally released) How many of us watch only the first few episodes of American Idol or Americas Got Talent simply to watch people that are terrible? Despite any real talent, the people that get on those shows expect to go on to great things, but what is apparent to everyone but themselves is how bad they are. This is their story! And it is quite funny. Funny enough to have a North American DVD release in my opinion.
Current film makers have defended this movie. Martin Scorsese lists it as one of his personal favorites. There certainly is a lot of history surrounding the making of the film. The fact that the press was allowed to see very little of the production has been the basis for an argument as to why it was given such a terrible critical reception; another is the lavish budget for what so many thought to be such a small payoff. I think what frustrated me the most was that I easily streamed Trolls 2 and bought Sharks in Venice on DVD very easily, and yet I was unable to find this charming comedy to rent. The worst movie of it’s time? Please. It lacked a certain element of sheer excess that seemed a staple in the 1980s (despite it’s budget) and the humor lacked cues as to when to laugh, but it was funny and entertaining, which is exactly what a movie is supposed to be.