Movies I Want Everyone to See: Ishtar

I have been defending this movie for thirty years and I stand by it today. This is exactly what it set out to be, a comedy that is a throw back to the Hope/Crosby road pictures, with a little contemporary humor thrown in. From before it even opened however, “Ishtar” has been the subject of invective, disinformation and derision, usually without having been seen. The fact that the most prominent TV critics of the era, Siskel and Ebert, panned it, probably contributed to the premature grave to which it has been buried for most of the last three decades. Look, I’m not saying it is an essential classic, I am simply arguing that it is an entertaining couple of hours that an open mind can get some enjoyment out of. Humor is subjective, my guess is that a lot of people don’t get “The Three Stooges” and they don’t think it is funny, but millions of others do. This film is the same, and I am challenging you to watch it and figure out which group you fall into.

I will structure my argument that Ishtar has good humorous value in a chronological fashion. The opening of the film features Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as songwriters trying to put together a new song. “Dangerous Business” may not be a good song, but it is a good example of the song writing process. These two bandy back and forth with lyrics and lines that try to move the structure of the song forward. They make several wrong turns and most of them are funny. When the word “herb” gets thrown in, that was funny, but it was even funnier when it got thrown out. We get some other quick instances of their terrible instincts in a series of songwriting attempts during some flashback sequences.

I’m Leaving Some Love in My Will

Chuck Clarke has written a song for an elderly couple celebrating at the restaurant he plays piano at. This is their third year coming back to celebrate an anniversary, and Chuck promised to commemorate their long time marriage with an original composition. It is so accurate but also tone deaf that it defies reason that the songwriter doesn’t get it. Except that he is so sincere and also so confident in his unrecognized talent, he doesn’t even see the horrified faces of the couples family.

Lyle Rodgers is equally as blind to his lack of talent. He is so involved with the song he is working on,  that he doesn’t notice all the customers he is driving by in his ice cream truck. Every kid in the neighborhood wants a drumstick, and all he can think of is “Hot Fudge Love”.

Cherry ripple kisses.

These are two obtuse individuals with the same dream and they happen to find each other. Academy Award nominated actresses Tess Harper and Carol Kane play the romantic partners of the two nitwits, but they are in the movie for all of two minutes. They clearly are aware enough that dumping these two is the only logical course. The fallout from these break-ups is part of the awkward humor in the opening act of the film. Lyle is devastated but it is Chuck, who was commitment phobic who really goes off the deep end. They attempt to bury themselves in work, but the guy who they approach to represent them suggests that they put together a singing act to launch their songs. This is where the second layer of comedy comes in. Chuck has the will but very little talent at performing and Lyle is so shy and introverted that he looks incredibly uncomfortable on stage.  They are also both a little long in the tooth.

The sequences with them trying out their own songs are plenty funny because most of the songs were written by Elaine May, the director and a well known comic mind, along with Paul Williams, one of the most prolific songwriters of the era. I remember reading back in 1987, that Williams was planning a release of the fifty or so songs or parts of songs that he and May had put together for the film. It would have been comedy gold. Of course since the film did not live up to it’s potential, the album never got made.

Interestingly, the characters do actually progress a little bit as entertainers. Of course improvement is a relative term.

The astonished looks on the faces of the audience also mimic the looks on our faces as we are watching this. This is a very self aware presentation and it is supposed to be deliberately awful. It’s why their agent Marty Freed. played by the worn out and down trodden Jack Weston, can only get them a booking in Honduras, where the death squads are active, or in Morocco, which is next to Ishtar, where revolution is blooming in the desert.

After a most humorous interlude [which includes Rabbis and SWAT]on the ledge of Chuck’s apartment building, where the two handle the most embarrassing suicide attempt since Dirty Harry or Lethal Weapon, they choose North Africa.

So far, this movie has sustained it’s tone, created characters that we can laugh at and even sympathize with in spite of their deficiencies, and it has provided us with a justification for the change in scenery. Now the one section that is a bit of a slog, involves the set up of the two musicians with a plot device to put them in over their heads. There is a convoluted story about a map that portends the fall of a kingdom and two messengers from God. While the film skirts the contentious issues in the Middle East concerning Israel, the Palestinians and the Sunni Shiite rift, it does presciently forecast the fanaticism that is sometimes found in this part of the world. Cultures that can produce riots where people die as a result of a cartoon published in another part of the world, or a rumor over mistreatment of a Qua-ran can bring unrest, are on display in the fictional Kingdom of Ishtar.

Hope and Crosby also got mixed in, usually by accident, with some big plot involving a power struggle in the places they visited. So too do Hoffman and Beatty. Chuck, who prefers the nickname “The Hawk” is approached by a mystery woman, posing as a boy, to obtain his passport so she can move freely between Ishtar and Morocco. He falls for the line “The Dome of the Emir’s Palace is made of gold. The people have never seen a refrigerator”.This becomes the insertion point for Isabella Adjani into the story and she serves as the Dorthy Lamour in this updated Road picture.

At almost the same time a fourth character is added to the story, the mild mannered and duplicitous Charles Grodin as Jim Harrison, the local CIA station chief. I can say with confidence, that if you do not find Grodin’s dry delivery and feckless spy craft funny, you will probably not enjoy the rest of the film. Most people however recognize that Grodin is an under appreciated comic treasure.  Adjani is sometimes a protagonist but usually a love interest, Grodin is the real villain of the film and he is hysterical.

The sight of him in a djellaba and fez is pretty damn funny in itself. The notion that other agents might get away with it is even more amusing. There is a good chase scene where the two Americans, who have been labeled dangerous because they might be conflated with the messengers of God foretold in the map, are followed by the CIA, the KGB, the Emir’s Secret police and the revolutionaries trying to recover the map all at once. The costuming provides a large amount of the humor there.

A whole variety of mistaken intentions, cross purposes and back stabbing behavior ensue. The third act of the film builds from the moment that Beatty’s Lyle buys a camel. Well not exactly, here is how he puts it:

Chuck Clarke: You mean you bought a camel?

Lyle Rogers: No, I didn’t really buy it. They SOLD it to me!

Lyle Rogers: Oh no. I think that something went wrong and now I own a blind camel. A blind camel!

The mistaken identity them reaches it’s climax as , after being lost in the desert, Rodgers and Clarke end up impersonating a Berber translator and a tribesman anxious to buy guns. I haven’t even mentioned the lengthy vulture and camel interludes that lead up to this moment. Suffice it to say, the dialogue is loopy, philosophical and matches the tone of the whole film.  

I have read some material that suggests that the film represents the naivete of Americans in the Middle East and that makes it a politically aware and forward thinking film. I’m not going to defend that point of view, I will simply say that all foreign policy is tricky and this film takes advantage of that. There is a pretty good summary of some of the misadventures of American policy  “The enemy of my enemies is my friend.” I’ll leave the politics of the film to someone more motivated to discuss that. I just want to argue that the movie is funny. 

I sat and watched it with my daughter who was born the year after it came out, and she was laughing so hard at some of the camel bits, it echoed down the hall and my wife called down to see what was going on. Like I said earlier, humor is subjective, and maybe because she is my kid she shares some of my perception, but we are not alone in this assessment. Gary Larson, who drew “The Far Side” cartoons, once lampooned “Ishtar with this panel:

Larson later apologized in one of his printed anthologies, stating “When I drew the above cartoon, I had not actually seen Ishtar…. Years later, I saw it on an airplane, & was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it’s not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark. There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so.”

There were even critics who offered praise but they were somehow drown out by the negative buzz. I read the Sheila Benson review in the LA Times and I remember thinking she was pretty brave to be swimming against the stream. Almost every review of the time focused on the cost of the picture and not it’s entertainment value. The long knives where out before the movie opened. The dean of the LA Times Critics community, Charles Champlin put it this way, “Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait, avid for signs of terminal weakness and early demise.”

Ishtar Blu

Ishtar Blu

Laser Version

Ishtar Laser Disc

The nice thing about films that get a home video release is that they can be reassessed years later by audiences without those preconceptions, as long as they ignore the prior invective.

This coming week, I will be hosting the Lambcast Movie of the Month. I championed “Ishtar” in the voting, and I look forward to doing the same in the discussion. I will pose a link for you when it goes up. I lost the 1987 Draft on the Lamb by a few votes last summer, I suspect my inclusion of this film is part of why that happened. I can’t complain about it, because the words of Rodgers and Clarke already told us this was true…

“Telling the truth can be dangerous business;/ Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.”

Fan Art by Adam Keene

The 1987 Draft Slate

The Lambcast Draft of 1987 is underway and you may have already voted for the fine slate of films I managed to nab during the podcast. If you were uncertain in any way as to the quality of my selections, I thought I’d provide a brief rundown and justification for each of the five films. You can then go the The Lamb and vote your conscience. The video above will also give you a 42 second justification for my choices.


In truth this needs no justification, everyone knows how amazing this Paul Verhofen film is. It is simultaneously  an action film, science fiction story and political satire. There are moments of extreme violence and there are sections where you may find yourself laughing at things you would never have imagined being funny. The special effects are a combination of stop motion, make-up and animation that are solid for 1987 and were not improved on by the remake a couple of years ago. The film is held together by two outstanding performances. Peter Weller is Alex Murphy, the police officer who becomes Robocop. His story line is surprisingly poignant and it is accomplished while wearing a heavy costume and uncomfortable make-up. Kurtwood Smith is the over the top villain of the piece, Clarence Boddicker, a drug dealing murderous thug with a flare for self importance that we wait a long time to see taken down.  Other performers are great as well, and I recently attended a Tribute Screening in honor of Miguel Ferrer who has a key role in the film.

The Untouchables

For a ten to fifteen year stretch,  Brian DePalma was my favorite director. His films were hypnotic to watch but they often dealt with psych sexual concepts that kept them from being mainstream hits. The Untouchables  broke that barrier for him with a straight forward gangster story that had a group of law enforcement officers as the heroes rather than a Cuban gangster (i.e. Scarface). The good guys were played by newly anointed star of the moment Kevin Costner, longtime character actor Charles Martin Smith, newcomer Andy Garcia and the winner of this years best supporting actor award, Sean Connery. The part of Al Capone was originally going to be played by Bob Hoskins, but when Robert DeNiro became available, Hoskins was paid off and another bigger than life star was added to the film. Hard as it is to believe, DeNiro was upstaged as the bad guy by the skeletal Billy Drago, who is memorably escorted to the car by Elliot Ness. The facts may not have been straight but the story was pretty terrific with several amazing set pieces that stand up to scrutiny today.

The Living Daylights

While my competitors on the podcast seem to mock my choice of a Timothy Dalton Bond film, all the real 007 fans out there know that Dalton was the real deal. He did not get much of a shot at playing the world’s greatest gentleman spy. This was his first shot and the film was never tailored to his strengths. You can detect a little of the flavor left over from the Moore era Bonds, but the story did make the circumstances more real. Dalton looked the literary part more than any other  cinema persona, even the true Bond Connery. This entry in the franchise features an excellent fight sequence and Bond is not even in it. The double crosses in this movie are more believable than those in a dozen other spy films, and the stunts continued to be the high spot in the 007 outings of the 1980s. Two years ago, as we were anticipating the most recent Bond picture, I did a series on my 007 favorite things about each film, “The Living Daylights” entry is here for your perusal. This was also the final Bond film for the long tenured composer John Barry.

The Hidden

This may be an obscure one for some of you. It was a low budget action film with stars who were not big names but were reasonably well known. The concept is the thing that sells this movie. In reality it is a science fiction chase film. Aliens have arrived on Earth, one is chasing the other. Now before you start having visions of Dolph Lungren in your head, the Aliens can take over a human body and use it to move around. The evil alien does this several times in the film, killing a series of otherwise law abiding people but turning their remains into blood-thirsty killers and thieves. There are some nice practical effects that show the parasite moving from one body to another. The L.A. Cop and the FBI Agent who are trying to track the perpetrator down are played by Michael Nouri from “Flashdance” and future otherworldly FBI Agent Kyle MacLachlan. This film features Agent Cooper before Twin Peaks, and we get an explanation as to why he is so odd. It is full of chases set in the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. By the way, all the construction you see on the streets then, is still going on. There is one scene set outside a strip club that is located next to Miceli”s Restaurant in Hollywood. It is across from a newsstand that I frequented before the internet, it is long gone now. The parking lot where the alien screws a guy to death is still there however, and the car they occupy is in a spot that I still park in when I go to the Egyptian Theater. This is 96 minutes of shooting, car chases, improbable plot developments and well known character actors getting a chance to strut a little bit. This film has the most bang for your buck in 1987.


Most people who ridicule this movie have not seen it. “Ishtar” was an attempt to recreate the film style of the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures of the forties. Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are cast against type, with Beatty as the flummoxed, tongue tied romantic and Hoffman as a self assured ladies man. Neither of the characters has it right but the two stars do all they can to sell it. Jack Weston is a New York talent agent who manages to get them a booking, and he is tired from the first to the last of his scenes. It is however Charles Grodin who steals the picture as a CIA man, trying to use the two musicians in a plot to control the government of a non-existent Middle Eastern Country.   The two lead encounter spies, terrorists, a mysterious woman and a blind camel. Writer/Director Elaine May had her directing career stymied by the results of this film, but she continued to be an important comedy presence of the big screen and is responsible for some great film scripts in the 90s. Legendary songwriter Paul Williams worked out a number of “bad” songs for the duo to performs, most of which have just a couple of lines used. However, if you can appreciate the theme “Dangerous Business” you will know what kinds of laughs we missed when the planned album of Rogers and Clarke was cancelled.

I own this two poster set, it is a great image that highlights a funny part of the movie.

I know it is a bit of a risk, but if any of you watches “Ishtar” as a result of my choosing it for the draft, even if I don’t win, I will feel some vindication.

1987 Movie Draft: Lambcast

This is the one you have all been waiting for, the 1987 Movie Draft on the Lambcast Podcast.

Four other Lambs and I compete to create the best slate of five movies from 1987. The show is a blast, as there is trash talk, reminiscences and general enthusiasm for this 30 year old time frame. You can listen to the show on the link below but more importantly, you can vote for a slate of films on the second link below that. Of course as a follower/reader of my site, I expect you to support my team. The only caveat is that I did include an outlier choice in “Ishtar”. Next week I will put up a mini-review page with comments for each of my selections. If you need to wait for that before you vote, I understand. Those of you who trust and love me however, should go vote now. My films are highlighted in the picture above. You cant go wrong with Robocop, Sean Connery and James Bond. “The Hidden” is a not so widely seen Science Fiction/Action film featuring Kyle MacLachlan. “Ishtar” is popularly thought of as a bomb, but it contains a lot of big laughs and an amusing attitude throughout.

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Voting can be done here:

LAMBCAST #385 1987 DRAFT: It’s time for another year draft! To celebrated Jay’s upcoming 30th birthday we’re taking the opportunity to look at films from his birth year, 1987! Jay competed against Dylan, T…