A legendarily over-budget film maudit (cursed film) and produced a full eleven years after the release of May’s prior film Mikey & Nicky (1976), Ishtar is the film that put the final nail in the coffin of her directing career. And yet, it’s one still ripe for rediscovery as a neglected classic; a film far ahead of its time and totally misunderstood on release after one of the most tumultuous productions of the 1980s. Starring then-superstars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as Rogers and Clarke, songwriters invited to Morocco to work as lounge singers, the film pivots when the two men become embroiled in a plot of international intrigue involving a covert CIA operation and left-wing anti-government guerrillas in the fictional North African country of Ishtar. Featuring complex performances from her top-of-their-game leads (who endured Kubrick-like multi-take scene shooting), May’s film nonetheless won a spot on many critics’ worst films of all time lists—but has since experienced a substantial rehabilitation based on the merits of the film itself, not its troubled production. New restoration!
Ishtar’s genius operates on many levels: the painfully inept, unfailingly hilarious lyrics Rogers and Clarke concoct, several written by May (“Water! / My lips are on fire / with my desire / for you”); the bumbling twosome’s deluded but touching belief in their talent and each other (the pair of putatively straight guys are easily the most loving couple in May’s oeuvre); the scathing satire of Reagan-era foreign policy. — Melissa Anderson, 4 Columns
Filled with great physical comedy and songs that are so awful they’re great, “Ishtar” is a movie whose time is now. — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times