A notorious box office bomb, Ishtar became the butt of countless jokes centered on Hollywood excess and failure. Made for $55 million (around $110 million today) Ishtar took in only $14.3 million in North American box office receipts. Despite three positive previews, negative buzz about the film and it’s seemingly astronomically budget had been in the press long before Ishtar opened in North American theaters on May 15, 1987. In truth, while Ishtar isn’t a great movie, it’s hardly the complete disaster history makes it out to be.
Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) are a recently formed singer/songwriter team who are delusional enough to imagine themselves of the same caliber as Simon and Garfunkel. They just know they’ll be big hit if they can get a break. They find an agent (Jack Weston) in the want ads who actually sits through one of their shows and shockingly, agrees to represent them. He can book them in two places, Honduras or the Middle East. They choose the Middle East just because it sounds the less dangerous of the two. Dressed like over-the-hill boy band rejects, Clark and Rogers board a plane for Morocco, convinced that fame awaits them.
During their trip, Chuck and Lyle become unwittingly involved with a beautiful rebel named Shirra (Isabelle Adjani), a blind camel and a CIA agent (Charles Grodin) who may or may not be trying to help them when they find themselves at the center of a quest for an ancient map that will evidently overthrow the dictatorial ruler of Ishtar. The concept was clearly taken from the popular “Road” films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In the seven film series, Bing usually played the cool, singing ladies’ man (or at least he thought he was) while Hope was the bumbling, naïve comic foil. Ishtar reversed the roles, making Hoffman the ladies man and Beatty the bumbler. Perhaps, because Beatty had such a reputation as a ladies’ man, audiences couldn’t buy him in the part, but the role reversal is actually kind of refreshing. Beatty and Hoffman offer up some genuine laughs; their characters blissfully unaware just how untalented they are.
If Ishtar has a real weakness, it’s the when the film settles into the desert, Chuck and Lyle leading a blind camel. There’s one slightly silly joke involving beads here, but for the most part, the leads are wasted, wandering aimlessly until some gunrunners show up. While I definitely would have done something different with this section of the story, I’ve seen much worse through the years.
Director Elaine May had a successful track record, first in the 1950’s as part of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols and then as a writer and director. She had previously worked with both Hoffman and Beatty, doing uncredited rewrites for both Hoffman’s Tootsie and Beatty’s Reds. Given the success of both films, the actors were eager to work with May again and the trio believed that Ishtar would be another success. Despite budget overruns and some production issues, test screenings went well. A shakeup at the studio meant that the release date for Ishtar was push back from a projected Christmas release to May. In that critics buzzed about how bad the film was. I can recall some comedians making Ishtar flop jokes weeks before the film reached screens. Given that environment, there was little chance that Ishtar was going to become anything other than the massive flop it was. With Sony releasing the film on Blu-ray, fans of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman should give Ishtar a look. You just might find something redeemable about it.
Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Sony’s 1080p transfer is a solid one. The image is clean and colors look true, upholding the pale visuals with a suitable amount of grain to give things a filmic appearance. There are no digital anomalies to report.
Audio is offered via a 5.1 DTS-HD master track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track that is probably more faithful to the film’s original construction. The 5.1 DTS-HD master track offers limited separation and little to no bass. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout.
English and English SDH subtitles are included.
There are no special features.
One note: the Director’s Cut runs 105 minutes, just two minutes shorter than Ishtar‘s widely-cited 107-minute theatrical run-time.