The 1987 film Ishtar opens with two middle-aged men sitting at a piano. Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) are trying to write a song called “Dangerous Business,” which Clarke later tells Rogers is as good as anything Simon and Garfunkel wrote. In that opening scene, the two flub along as they try to compose the song’s lyrics: “Telling the truth is a bad idea. / Telling the truth is a scary predicament. / Telling the truth is a bitter herb. / When you get out of that tunnel… it’s a bitter herb.”
“Forget herb,” Hoffman says in frustration. “I’ve never heard of a hit with the word herb in it.”
I first saw the film on a homemade VHS tape with poor tracking. My brother had recorded the movie from Cinemax or somewhere, and by the time I got to college it had become regular viewing on nights when someone had booze or pot. Despite our age difference, I identified with Beatty’s and Hoffman’s characters in their struggle to write—one of the reasons the film’s opening is so humorous. By college I had begun writing stories, and like those two men, I naively thought something I had written was good when it was, in fact, terrible. But my appreciation for Ishtar grew with numerous viewings.
More than the adventure comedy it’s labeled as, Ishtar is actually a genre-exploder, full of ingenious one-liners; a propulsive, smart narrative/plot; and a subliminal de lunatico inquirendo that renders a swift kick to the psychic penetralia. Written by Elaine May, whose work also includes The Birdcage and Tootsie, this film delivers in large doses. The attempts Beatty’s and Hoffman’s characters make to survive life-threatening situations are perfunctory and funny and garner empathy from the audience; love interests, trust, friendship, and survival remain constant and compelling themes throughout.
The headline in good old Gene Siskel’s May 14, 1987, review in The Chicago Tribune reads: nothing works in boring “ishtar,” and Siskel even doubles down with the inexorable claim that the film “fails at every level” (italics mine), an assessment that I, of course, wholeheartedly disagree with. Most if not all the reviews were poor. They failed to see and appreciate the humor and pacing of the film. What critics like Siskel saw as pacing problems are in fact part of the film’s “ineluctable modality of the visible,” as James Joyce would say. They are less gratuitous and more steeped in following the path toward redemption: two men—single, lonely, damaged, broke, pathetically pusillanimous, desperate to write and sell poorly written songs—flee to the fictional country of Ishtar, near Morocco, to perform a gig, but instead become involved, unwillingly and by accident, with the CIA in an attempt to overthrow the monarch of Ishtar.
Film nerds of the world, unite! The exformative associations the movie creates are what are most appealing to those of us who attempt to create things like art. Largely through unsubtle humor and empathy, the movie reveals the truths we fail to recognize in ourselves until much later—like trying to write songs or stories or poems or whatever; none are as great as we seem to believe they are in the moment. True greatness moves through a sort of coeval time, persists, survives, and thrives many years later. I recently rewatched the movie and found it as funny, smart, and enjoyable as I did so many years ago, even minus the weed.