The following is Scout Tafoya's latest entry in "The Unloved," a series about artistically interesting movies that, for whatever reason, didn't get a fair shake on first release. Scout's latest video essay considers the fate of "Ishtar", Elaine May's 1987 comedy, which deserves the adjective "epic" for its sheer scale, but doesn't wear it well because it's so intimate and sweet.
Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman starred in this overscaled contemporary version of a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" movie about a couple of lounge musicians who get mixed up with the CIA in a mythical Middle Eastern country. Like other films spotlighted in this series, "Ishtar" is a hybrid of different genres and has a tone somewhat at odds with its visuals. That's a source of a lot of the movie's humor—it's fun to watch two hapless dopes wander through May's elegantly framed panoramas—but it's arguably the wellspring of its commercial failure as well. Audiences generally don't like to have to feel their way through a fresh response to a movie that isn't exactly as advertised. They'd rather be told what to think, or that they don't have to think: that the movie is worthy of ridicule sight-unseen.
In the months leading up to release, there were stories of the movie's "out-of-control" budget (in reality, many 1987 films were more expensive, and most of them far less intriguing) and prognostications of a flop that would destroy all involved. The negativity added up to self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows how it might've done if it had simply opened, without all that intensely focused, weirdly selective bad press? "Ishtar" proved influential in one respect: it gave the mainstream media a template for how to bleed a idiosyncratic Hollywood film to death, one paper cut at a time, before it had a chance to open and be fairly judged. I've heard movie producers say of peculiar, personal, journalistically harpooned big-budget movies: "It got Ishtarred." -- Matt Zoller Seitz