The only time I saw Ishtar from beginning to end was on a plane. We were flying to England, I think [My sister tells me it was a trip to Hawaii.]. The movie felt longer than the flight. But, I have very little memory of the content from then. I've seen scattered moments from the film in the intervening years, but I have never sat down to watch the whole thing again. Supposedly, it's one of the worst films ever made; that's a superlative I should have sought out before now.
Yet, here I am.
Twenty-two minutes before we get to the desert. I remembered none of that from seeing this before. And now, it feels like a different movie... And, I'm reminded of Spies Like Us, which also had a couple losers getting inadvertently involved in international affairs. Except, with better comedy, and, considering the timing (Spies Likes Us came out in 1985, Ishtar in 1987), Spies Like Us made for a better twist on the tail end of the Cold War... Except I'm not sure this movie is even trying to do that. This is Warren Beatty doing a favor for writer/director Elaine May with the intent of making a Hope and Crosby-type movie. I've seen some of those but that was even longer ago than I saw Ishtar. I don't know how successfully this manages to ape those.
So, I find myself looking at box office numbers. Opening weekend, this movie was #1, but the next weekend Beverly Hills Cop II came out and nothing came close to that movie's numbers that weekend. #1 it's opening weekend despite a lot of negative word of mouth about its production...
The political plot going on is far denser than the film so far has earned. Overthrowing a tyrant? They're just a horrible lounge act desperate for cash... Then again, I come to back to Spies Like Us. If those guys can avoid World War III, these guys can probably help this woman...
I kinda wish I was watching Spies Like Us right now. The lead characters here are just to passive in their own story, and the story is so slow. Good ol' Roger Ebert described well these two characters:
It's hard to play dumb. There's always the danger that a little fugitive intelligence will sneak out of a sideways glance and give the game away. The best that can be said for "Ishtar" is that Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, two of the most intelligent actors of their generation, play dumb so successfully that on the basis of this film there's no evidence why they've made it in the movies.
The scenes without them are more engaging--the various spy guys talking about which other spy guys nearby are from what country ("No. The ones dressed as Arabs. The ones dressed as Texans are Arab agents... "No, the Bermuda shorts. The ones in Hawaian shirts are tourists."), Charles Grodin talking to the Emir--citing the kalashnikovs "we sold you" as proof he knows who tried to kill the leads.
Okay, the camel dealer offering a dead camel was actually quite funny.
The blind camel bumping into people is pretty good physical comedy, too.
Okay, maybe it's the second glass of wine, or maybe the script just got far better. "The water has to last you about another 48 minutes." "Why, what happens then?" "We run out of water." That's actually good stuff.
"Who told you that?" indeed.
It's like someone else wrote the first hour of this thing. Slog through all that and it's going to get interesting.
I must disagree with Roger. He calls this part of the film
the long, pointless sequence in the desert that begins with jokes about bling camels and ends with Hoffman and Beatty firing machineguns [sic] at a helicopter. It probably is possible to find humor in blind camels and helicopter gunfights, but this movie leaves the question open.
No, this movie answers that questions, and the answer is in the affirmative. There is humor in blind camels and helicopter gunfights. Except for this: they don't shoot at the helicopter at all. The helicopter's arrival scatters the weapon auction Hoffman is faking his way through (with the same sort of racist gibberish used in Team America: World Police years later), and then the helicopter leaves.
"This isn't really a good time to get depressed." --oddly hilarious.
Ah, I spoke too soon. Helicopter came back and they did, indeed, shoot at it. Then two helicopters. And it's hardly "pointless". In fact, this is the plot itself. (Roger also claims there's no plot.) The CIA wants these guys dead, and so do the rebels. Except for Beatty's real-life girlfriend, and the random guide who drove her out to find them.
"How would he know?" Funny stuff.