Tellin’ the truth can be dangerous business
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand
If you admit you can play the accordion
No one will hire you for a rock ‘n’ roll band – Rogers and Clarke
Growing up, Ishtar was synonymous with awful. There was a Far Side strip that featured Hell’s video store, well in-stock with nothing but copies of Ishtar. In 1995, when Waterworld was on its way to becoming a fiasco, it was dubbed the next Ishtar. While not a perfect film, Ishtar isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests. It had a bloated budget and various production issues, but the film features plenty of silly laughs, while providing a commentary on the quest for celebrity and American black-ops. Its failures are financial, not of content.
Two songwriters, Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman), are long on ambition and short on talent. As hard as they try, they can’t catch a break. Their ambitions in life and love are met with failure, and the New York is unkind to their plight. They are given a choice by their manager, Marty Freed (Jack Weston), to take a residency gig in Honduras or Morocco. Due to the roaming death squads in Honduras, the two hard-luck, would-be singers take the gig in Morocco. Upon their arrival they encounter Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), a revolutionary who seeks a recently discovered ancient map that may help her overthrow the government of Ishtar. Chuck meets Jim Thompson (Charles Grodin), a friendly American who buys Chuck dinner. During their dinner, Jim informs Chuck that he’s a CIA agent, and convinces Chuck to keep his eyes open on behalf of the agency. Chuck and Lyle are as good at international intrigue as they are at songwriting. In the end, the duo are almost killed by the CIA, and are able to get the agency to back their debut album.
The songs of Rogers and Clarke are pitch perfect in their awfulness, and Beatty and Hoffman’s inability to carry a tune makes them all the better. Composed by Paul Williams, Dangerous Business has a ring of truth to it, as well as absurdity. One of the funnier gags in the film involves Chuck Clarke working solo at a restaurant. While an elderly couple celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary, Chuck serenades them with a sad love song about death, a dying man bequeathing his love to his widow. It’s a poor song performed poorly at an inopportune time.
The film was criticized for placing Beatty and Hoffman against type, Beatty playing a shy little man and Hoffman playing the arrogant ladies’ man. While not the best performance of either’s career, they’re nowhere near as bad as their reputation suggests. In many respects, they’re supposed to be bad. The unsung hero of the film is Charles Grodin. Blending arrogance and incompetence, Grodin presents the CIA as never really seen on film before, a great comic villain.
Ishtar also carries with it a very strong political undercurrent, writer-director Elaine May has crafted an homage to the Road to… films of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, but with an anti-interventionalist message. This plays out on a larger and small scale in the film. The CIA’s meddling in international affairs causes havoc and chaos in the region, dictators are propped up and people repressed. When Chuck begins doing work for the CIA, it causes a rift in between himself and his songwriting partner. As illustrated in one scene where spies from every country are spying on one another in an outdoor market place, everyone is watching each other without any real clue as to what they’re doing. It’s a strong statement against the American foreign policy under Nixon and Reagan.
Ishtar has a long way to go before fully shaking its reputation. Elaine May, a two-time Academy Award nominee, has never directed another film. May would go on to write two films for Mike Nichols, The Birdcage and Primary Colors, though she’s commonly referred to being in movie jail. Oddly enough, Beatty and Hoffman only appeared in a handful of films in the ‘80s, and would briefly reunite in 1990’s Dick Tracy, directed by Beatty. It’s important to note to what extent Ishtar is failure of budgeting and planning, not of the actual movie. There was no real reason to shoot a light comedy in Morocco, and the sums paid to Beatty and Hoffman are still exorbitant to this day. There’s no real reason that a comedy of this mold should’ve cost what it did. That being said, the charms of Ishtar are greater than its flaws. It’s a sly piece of misunderstood entertainment. Even if you don’t laugh at the backwards stylings of Rogers and Clarke, you’ll laugh at the moments of misunderstanding and international intrigue. Bad music and a blind camel – what’s not to like?