So, I did indeed watch Ishtar (online at Netflix) yesterday, for the first time since it came out in 1987. And I stand by everything I wrote yesterday:
It's very funny, in parts, and it's such an un-American story--celebrating losers and bumblers, and depicting the CIA as murderous manipulators in the Middle East--I think it rubbed some people wrong. It almost feels blasphemous, or treasonous, in the refreshing way.
(Woody Allen's wonderful Broadway Danny Rose, from 1984, also celebrates schmucks, but offers no social commentary, cutting or otherwise.)
Julian Myers, in "On Elaine May", expresses a similar point of view:
"I have a theory about why critics found Ishtar so intolerable. It has to do with Top Gun, in whose wake Ishtar is meant to be a blockbuster, and Ishtar is among other things a military espionage film with requisite 1980s missiles and helicopters.The politics hold up incredibly well--you would hardly have to change a thing if you remade it today. Except the joke about Gaddafi of Libya making a pact with the USA doesn't work anymore, because that has in fact now happened.
And of course Top Gun was populated by these new, healthy, phallic, charged military characters. And here are Beatty and Hoffman, these big stars, are playing talentless schmucks (here’s more Yiddish—and indeed there is a hysterical riff in Ishtar on the word ‘schmuck,’ which Beatty’s character, like Beatty a gentile, can’t pronounce properly). It drove people crazy."
Because the humor about the main characters, the likable loser songwriters, is itself not specific to the time, it still works too--at least for people like me. Warren Beatty comforting the suicidal Dustin Hoffman by praising him, "You'd rather have nothing than settle for less", is dear to my heart.
Interesting to realize these actors were already interconnected with May. Mike Nichols directed Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), though I don't know that May & Hoffman knew each other. Warren Beatty, who produced Ishtar, starred in Heaven Can Wait (1978), co-written by May.
And Paul Williams's and Elaine May's songs are godawfully painful, and the worst of it is, they're catchy! You can listen to them at the Ishtar site. Don't. Like those commercials Barry Manilow wrote ("you deserve a break today"), they stick in your brain, and you can't get them out.
[photo from American Masters: About Elaine May]
The songs are truly bad, and that takes some doing.
I admire original, imaginative badness.
Most bad stuff is dull and repetitive. The most common kind of bad writing is made up of cliches. There's nothing original in it at all. True badness comes from an imaginative mind. It requires a kind of genius. It's just ... bad genius. So, to make a good movie about bad genius, that's, well... that's Ishtar.