Ishtar

On New Years Day some friends and I were debating whether we wanted to risk playing a game of Trivial Pursuit. On the one hand, we were in the mood for a game and most of us were good at trivia... But on the other hand, the only version of Trivial Pursuit that was handy was the O.G. version, the one that’s now decades old. That version might be great if you're old enough to remember Francis the Talking Mule or Bebe Rebozo, but it's a little dicier for people who were born after that game came out because as time has passed the answers have slowly devolved from "trivial" to "actually insignificant." (Bebe Rebozo? Really?) We did end up playing, and I actually kicked a lot of ass, because for whatever reason I’ve always been a trivia magnet, even for stuff that happened before my time.

For example: Ishtar, which was a political satire that came out in theaters when I was six. People in my parents generation probably remember Ishtar because it was the victim of a massive media pile-on for months before it ever hit the screen. It starred Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom had been huge stars for decades at that point, and it was directed by Elaine May, who was well respected in her own right, so it was considered newsworthy when it took so long to get made. (It’s shooting went long, as did it’s editing phase). It was a classic case of schadenfreude - people felt that Beatty and Hoffman were smug, and carping about the film's budget problems gave everyone a chance to take them down a peg. All of that negative pre-release buzz and then bad reviews helped it to become a notorious flop.

However, while Ishtar was infamous a generation ago, now it’s profile is probably close to zero. It’s a film that’s infamous because no one saw it, but that sort of infamy is hard to maintain, because how often does anyone think about an experience they successfully avoided? It also doesn't help that none of Ishtar's main talent means as much to people that were born in the 80s or later as they did to the boomers. (Especially Beatty, who has basically been retired from movie making since I was in high school.) Oh, and it's also basically out of print - although it did pop up on Netflix streaming a few months ago.

This leads to an interesting dilemma in terms of writing about it. Because I'm a weirdo, I've basically always remembered Ishtar as being a big deal, so when I watched it my main reaction was “wait, this little movie was what got all that bad press?!” But of course now the film isn’t a big deal - it has finally become the little movie it should have always been. So is it better to document my unreasonable experience, or should I try to anticipate a more likely reaction to this movie?

Ishtar is not a good movie, but it is competent enough – the jokes don’t always land and the pacing is a bit off, but both Beatty and Hoffman have enough charisma to make it watchable, and it actually becomes enjoyable in the few scenes where Charles Grodin pops up. Unlike (say) Battlefield Earth where the film's troubled production history is visible in every awkward frame, you would never guess that Ishtar was a difficult baby to birth from what you see on screen.

Overall, Ishtar felt like a dumber version of the Coen brothers movie Burn After Reading, because it is a satire of cold war politics about two bumbling lounge singers who end up getting hired by the C.I.A. to be spies in a fictional Middle East country, and all of the jokes come from the fact that none of them understands anything about what's going on, especially not the C.I.A., who is supposed to know it all. But the Coens' tale of bumbling spies is a lot bleaker than the goofy Ishtar, and that extra bit of cynicism makes Burn After Reading a much better movie, because it really underscores how tragic it is when the people who are supposed to know it all are complete doofuses. The murderers, rebels and “patriots” that Ishtar is trying to spoof are actually bad people whose mixture of ignorance and violence is legitimately troubling; a movie that tells their tale with gallows humor is going to feel truer than a film that treats them toothlessly, and Ishtar is pretty toothless.

Because the film is pretty flawed, I think that anyone who sat down to watch it would be kind of underwhelmed. But I doubt that most people in my generation would be as underwhelmed as I was, because if they don't remember all the hullabaloo it caused when it first came out they wouldn't go into it expecting to see an epic clusterfuck like I did. Of course, I could be wrong; maybe there are a ton of thirty year olds who are salivating to see the movie that took Warren Beatty down a peg. If you are one of those thirty year olds you should drop me a line - you'd probably be a more worthy O.G. trivial pursuit competitor than the people I was playing against on New Years Day.

Winner: Draw

Ishtar on IMDB