Two terrible lounge singers get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the CIA, the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying ... See full summary »
Two terrible lounge singers get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the CIA, the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying to overthrow his regime. Written by
When Marty Freed is sitting with Chuck and Lyle, after he first hears their act, he puts his hand up to his mouth ("Let me tell you what I told Tony Bennett..."). In the next shot, the hand is on the table. See more »
Despite what was spent on this film and the awful reviews that followed (the latter based solely on the former), I really enjoyed this movie. The story of Rogers and Clarke, two would-be songwriters a la Simon and Garfunkel is genuinely funny and worth repeated viewings just to catch all the gags and the intentionally awful lyrics. Paul Williams wrote the songs with the help of director Elaine May and they provide hilarity throughout the film.
According to Leonard Maltin, the movie is structured like a Hope-Crosby outing with "shades of 'Road to Morocco'." I have never seen a film in the 'Road to...' series so I have to take Maltin's word for it.
Beatty and Hoffman play songwriters who meet one day and find they have the same dream. They both have tunes in their heads that distract them from their lives, their girlfriends and their jobs to such a degree that they pursue a songwriting career together. The trouble is that their songs are so bad, the lyrics so painful, that their agent (the late Jack Weston) can only get them booked in Morocco, bordering the fictional country of Ishtar.
The story opens with a sampling of songs written by Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman). They range from the hysterical ("She said, 'Come look, there's a wardrobe of love in my eyes/Take your time, look around, maybe see something your size.") to the insane ("If you admit that you can play the accordion/No one will hire you in a rock and roll band."). In flashbacks we see how they meet and the events leading up to their professional partnership. It must have been May who, in an inspired move, cast Hoffman as the ladies' man and Beatty as the dense Southern hick. That Hollywood joke will last long after they're gone.
Once in Morocco, they unwittingly become pawns in an overthrow of Ishtar; Lyle for, Chuck against. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, the story turns away from the songwriting plot and concentrates on blind camels, dopey CIA agents and Sheira Aselle, a left-wing beauty played by Isabelle Adjani. She recruits Chuck and Lyle to find her dead brother's map, and winds up having feelings for them both. Meanwhile, Jim Harrison, a CIA man played by Charles Grodin, convinces Chuck that Lyle is a clever Communist and pays Chuck for everything Lyle says. This eventually leads them out into the desert, hopelessly lost and dying of thirst. When things look their worst under the burning hot sun, Lyle turns to Chuck and says, "My lips are on fire." To which Chuck replies, "With my desire!" Nothing keeps these two from possibly writing the next hit song. Therein lies the true surprise of this movie. It never goes in the direction you would think. There are constant left turns with riotous results.
After an attempt to get some drinking water from a band of desert gunrunners (there is a hilarious scene with Hoffman pretending to speak several North African dialects as an arms auctioneer), the film ends with a shoot-out between our heroes and the CIA hit men who want these two 'messengers of God' out of the picture. With the help of Sheira and Abdul (their guide and hash connection) they overpower their pursuers and yell out, "F*** you twice!" for good measure.
What the film may be telling us is that keeping a song in your heart at all times is a sure way to escape your troubles. No matter how bad things get, if you pursue your dream it will happen for you. In order to get their first live album produced, Rogers and Clarke make a deal with Jim Harrison concerning social reforms in Ishtar and the blessed map. The way these two sing, this seems to be the only way it could ever be produced.
Although 'Ishtar' is more of a comedy than a musical, I felt it paid homage to a type of filmmaking that is not seen anymore. Even if the songs will never become standards, they are rather memorable in a demented sort of way (according to the end credits, the soundtrack is available). At least the songs fit into the story of the lives of these two guys. The songs from a movie like 'Down Argentine Way' were nothing more than musical interludes. I think the film succeeds on the levels of both parody and originality. It is definitely worth a look.
Aside: Does anyone have the soundtrack to this film. I would like to know how to get a copy. Please e-mail me at if you can help.
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