Reputation can go a long way in the world of art, success can snowball, echo into greatness. Other times it can be a curse, swallowing works into depths of darkness that they can never return from. In 1987, a cinematic epic infamously dubbed the worst film ever, pitted two struggling musicians, trying to find success in the diplomatic sector of Morocco. Mostly done as a favour to Elaine May, who helped two well-known actors out: Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. The two stars jump in feet first into this 60s inspired adventure, in the desert tale of Ishtar.
Failed songwriters Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers get given a once in a lifetime opportunity to ply their trades in Morocco. The job is simple: entertain at the military bases and embassy complexes, for the personnel’s families. The last act having quit, due to growing unrest in the area. Faced with the dire straits back in New York, the duo jump at the opportunity. However, a chance meeting at the airport gets the duo involved in global geopolitics, mystic prophecies, and a lot of laughs in the sandy dunes.
Beatty and Hoffman make a fine duo; they manage to keep the laughs coming even before the bulk of the film’s premise starts to kick in. It is the kind of double act you wish to see more of, like Laurel and Hardy. The multiple mix-ups featuring hilarious antics with, for example, an espionage-trained camel, help add to the comparison. Most of the interactions feel like they could have been prime gags in the 60s “Road To” films that Ishtar is trying to emulate.
Despite being less than perfect musicians, the tunes in Ishtar are nice, even though they were designed to be the worst possible. I believe is due to the delivery of Beatty and Hoffman. Though this film is not a musical, as it is an adventure that has a lot to offer. Weapon deals, exotic street markets, the intrigue of governments, spy organisations; Ishtar combines all these with a healthy dose of comedy, that equates to a heady mix. The results end up emulating the classic comedies of the 60s while commentating on the politics of the time and feeling modern and approachable to new audiences.
Reputations can be a double-edged sword, sometimes they can be the start of prosperous opportunities, other times scar them. It is a shame that Ishtar has fallen victim to such a harsh reputation; the result is a rather fun frolic in the Sahara Desert. Its cheif failing is that it did not make as much of a splash in the cinema. Ishtar is a fun blueprint, and I feel it could have started a whole franchise of similar adventures. Some failures do bury their creatives, yet Beatty and Hoffman still managed to have continued success despite its ridicule. Ishtar is not their swansong, but it could have ended up being that way.
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