Flop Era: Ishtar – Reviewing The Legendary Box Office Bomb
Hello and welcome to Flop Era, my new series. As you might guess from the title, I’m going to be watching some of the most famous–or perhaps, infamous–film flops of all time. And the first up for Flop Era is Ishtar. So let’s get into it.
The Films That Flopped: How I’m Picking These Selections
First of all, I wanted to say a little something about how I made my choices for this series. Or in other words, how I define a flop. I reserve the right to change the rules at any moment. However, at this moment, I’m going to be going through only the most notorious flops. After all, if I expanded the definition of a bomb to any movie that underperformed at the box office, then I would be writing about those movies until the heat death of the universe.
And speaking of bombs, if I just stuck to the biggest ones of all time, then that’s still a staggering list. So for the time being, I’m going to focus on stuff that’s a little older. I will review more contemporary movies, but I’m going to stay away from very recent flops. By that, I mean movies from the past year, like Wonder Woman 1984 and Tenet. First, there’s an argument that the WW1984 or Tenet box office haul wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Second, those movies might still be in theaters somewhere, so they don’t really count. But you know what does? Ishtar.
Ishtar: The Most Notorious Flop I Know
image via Columbia Pictures
When I came up with the idea for Flop Era, I knew Ishtar was always going to be the first movie. I’d never seen it, but I’d heard enough about it to know that it had to be first. I grew up in a home with a literary collection that we’ll just call “eclectic.” That means that literature and encyclopedias shared bookshelf space with Anaïs Nin and weekly tabloids. It was through the latter that I learned about Ishtar, or more specifically, what a disaster it was. The weeklies never seemed to specify why exactly, because that wasn’t the point. The point was to freude in the schaden. The tabloids reported each setback with a glee that didn’t border on nasty–it tap-danced across the border and became a naturalized citizen.
I’m still not sure exactly why the entertainment papers covered the film the way they did. But I don’t really think it’s anything having to do with the film itself. After all, they would cover other upcoming films in this series in similar ways. I think they just smelled blood in the water, and they couldn’t help themselves. Ishtar had a number of setbacks in its production and the director, Elaine May, clashed with both stars. And so much money went into it. All of that is an irresistible combination for the weekly rags.
But they weren’t the only ones, of course. Over time, Ishtar became synonymous with a big box office bomb. Sophia panned it on Golden Girls, for instance. It even made Gary Larson’s The Far Side comic, as the only film available in Hell’s video store.
So What Is Ishtar, Anyway?
Elaine May, who not only directed the film, but also wrote it, pitched the movie as an updated take on the old Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road to… movies. The updated part would be the inclusion of modern politics. As this was the 80s, you might already know that the politics were, shall we say, spicy back then. (Insert “THIS FILM IS DEDICATED TO THE BRAVE MUJAHIDEEN FIGHTERS OF AFGHANISTAN” meme here.) So you can assume that whenever I mention anything related to the political storyline, I’m also saying, “yikes” at the same time.
Anyway, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as Chuck Clarke and Warren Beatty as Lyle Rogers. Together, they’re Rogers & Clarke, just about the worst singing duo you’ve ever heard. Props to Paul Williams, by the way, who faced the unenviable task of writing songs that were bad on purpose.
Unsurprisingly, their careers are in the toilet. Still, an agent shows interest in them and offers them a gig in Morocco. They have literally nothing better to do, so they accept the job. Unbeknownst to them, though, the neighboring (and very fictional) country of Ishtar is in a lot of upheaval, due both to the Cold War and also more regional concerns. Through a series of (ridiculous) events, the pair end up at the center of a standoff between four separate parties, including the CIA. Hijinks ensue?
Anyway, I’m not the only one who’s thought about the movie over the years. Other people, perhaps curious because of its reputation as a stinker, have reassessed the film. Unsurprisingly, they’ve reported that it doesn’t deserve to be called, among other things, the “worst movie of all time.” But if we’re not saying that, then what are we saying?
Flop Era: Ishtar
Here’s what I say about it. First of all, it’s definitely not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Still, it’s not as good as it could be.
It begins with the casting. May cast the actors against type, so that Hoffman is the smooth ladies’ man and Beatty is the nebbishy nerd. May obviously thought this would be hilarious, but it just doesn’t work. Instead, it’s weird as hell to see Lyle bemoan that women don’t come up to him like they do with Chuck. This is a movie with visuals! I can still see Warren Beatty’s face! I’m supposed to look at that face and say, “Yeah, that’s a guy that doesn’t get “? Please.
image via Columbia Pictures
But that aside, the movie just feels bloated. At the time of its release, Dave Kehr wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Ishtar is a good movie, but you can’t help but wonder if, lurking somewhere in those cans of outtakes, there isn’t a great movie, too.” I had a similar thought. There’s possibly a good movie in here, but it gets bogged down in corny, outdated humor and a Middle East politics plotline that gets too convoluted for its own good. And that’s a shame, because May is obviously trying to say something here.
If they’d trimmed the fat and polished up the jokes, then I could easily see Ishtar being as beloved as other 80s adventure comedies. But due to forces largely beyond its control, it was basically doomed before it even hit theaters. It didn’t deserve that, and Elaine May certainly didn’t deserve to have it end her directorial career forever.
But that’s just what I think. Tell me what you think, including flops you think I should watch, in our comments or on our social media.
featured image via Columbia Pictures
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.