Feature Movies Review

Bad Movie Monday: Ishtar

It’s the movie that virtually destroyed one directing career, and nearly ruining two other acting careers.

This 1987 comedy grabs your attention with leads Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman – both reputable stars in their own right. Director Elaine May had some directing experience under her belt with the 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid and directing/starring in1971’s A New Leaf with Walter Matthau.

So, why is this under the “Bad Movie Monday” label?

Rogers & Clarke. Poor man’s Simon & Garfunkel

Ishtar starts off a little confusing. We’re introduced to Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman), attempting to write a song / jingle / something musical. Something about “telling the truth can be dangerous business / honest and popular don’t go hand in hand”. They are a songwriting duo. A spectacularly bad songwriting duo who are trying to make it big. Their dream is to be the next Simon and Garfunkel. But with a bad manager, they slum it out with their original tunes in battle of the bands competition – to no avail. At the same time (and poor editing) we find out how Rogers and Clarke met, their ups and downs with relationships and jobs going nowhere, but managing to stick by each other. They both have a passion: to entertain!

After their latest gig becoming a stinker, they are offered a gig to perform at a hotel, all the way in Hondouras in Central America. Elsewhere, in Ishtar, a map is discovered by archaeologists which that shows that if two messengers appear in Ishtar, the poor will up-rise and start a holy war. The camp is infiltrated, but one escapes and hides the map, informing Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani) over the phone, only to be murdered. Back to the guys – on the way, Clarke is approached by Assel, posing as a rebel fugitive woman in disguise who needs to escape to Marrakesh, switches identities with Clarke after convincingly flashing her breasts. So they go to the US Embassy to get his identity back, but the embassy refuses due to the country being on the brink of civil war. So Clarke remains in town while Rogers heads to their gig. While Clarke checks in to his hotel, he meets Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) who reveals he’s a CIA Agent and talks about how countries want to take over Ishtar.

One bad map to rule them all

Later on, Clarke eventually catches up with Rogers in Morocco to perform a few Simon & Garfunkel jingles, with decent success – boosting their ego. Back at their hotel rooms, Assel breaks into Rogers’s room, to tell him that his mate is a CIA agent – without Clarke knowing. Clarke has a meeting with Harrison and discovers that he was bugged.

Still with me?

The next hour is a blur, with Rogers and Clarke slowly realising that they are being used as a decoy for the US to infiltrate Ishtar and overthrow the government. After a chase scene through the city, Rogers and Clarke make their way to the camel market, where Clarke catches up with Harrison, unaware that they’re being used as pawns. Harrison tells Clarke that they need to hide in the oasis in the middle of the desert. They are to hide there until the government will pick them up in the middle of the night. For supplies, he gives Clarke 2 canteens and a compass wrapped in fabric. Meanwhile Assel meets up with Rogers and after finding about how Rogers and Clarke will be killed that night, Assel instructs him to walk in to the desert dropping beads until they can no longer see the city. When night falls, the beads will glow in the dark so they can follow the trail back.

“Help me, I’m in a bad film I can’t get out of”

After walking hopelessly with a blind camel into the desert and rations slowly disappearing, they’re start to lose hope. Little do they know, Harrison bugged Clarke’s clothing, with the CIA tracking their move in the desert – hoping for them to eventually perish. During a sandstorm, the bugged fabric blows away, with an awkward mapping pattern noted by the CIA. Later on, Clarke and Rogers accidentally stumble upon a gun smuggling auction, and Clarke sabotages the sale in order to grab the canteens to survive. The auction goes haywire, and Rogers and Clarke escape with guns. Just as they lose hope and out of water, Rogers discovers that the fabric Clarke was wearing that contained the canteens and compass is a map of the desert – a map that the CIA need to overthrow Ishtar. The CIA track down the guys in the desert, only to discover they’re still alive. Thinking that the CIA are there to rescue them, they grab their attention, only to be fired upon. Rogers and Clarke work out the guns they’ve obtained and fire back, in which the CIA retreat to bring in back-up.

“10 weeks in the Sahara Desert for this?”

Assel turns up in a desert taxi to rescue the guys, and sets up a defensive mode to shoot at the CIA who come back with back-up. The CIA retreat and deem the whole event a failure. However, Rogers and Clarke still have the map, and offer them a choice: help promote their albums worldwide for free or they’ll release the map to the public. They eventually get their dream: performing at the Chez Casablanca. Bad music bleeds. But in the end – that’s all they wanted! To sing and entertain.

Ishtar had issues from the start. With a budget of $55 million, there were reported clashes with cast and crew, production studios changing management, re-writing of scripts and bad direction. There are many negative behind-the-scenes stories to go with this film, but it was the last film that Elaine May has directed. Though in some interviews Hoffman has defended the film, the overall response was negative. The DVD release is only available in Europe.

It was that bad, trying to do a write-up for this site was a struggle.

This installment of Bad Movie Monday is brought to you by Charles Grodin. While a credible comedian, this film was chosen poorly. The less heads – the better the bad film is.


EXTRA: It’s all fun and games with the film – with this tribute from Dustin Hoffman to Warren Beatty a few years ago.



Owner and Operator of Wireless Fodder. Lover of Australian pop culture, comedy, and obscurities. Works in Australian media, enjoys a beer or three. Happily married to an American.

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