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Films: I is for...

Ishtar

Well, you can’t blame David Puttnam for this one. His predecessor in the job of head of Columbia Pictures, Guy McElwaine, had a rather chequered career. On the plus side, he got the first two Karate Kids off the ground. On the minus, he spent $25 million on bollocks revivalist jungle romp Sheena (with romantic lead Ted Wass!), and shareholders can never forgive a folly like that. In a last-ditch attempt to make amends, McElwaine raided his Rolodex to put together a hasty raft of package deals featuring as many industry ‘players’ as he could muster, and that’s how Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty came to wear those gold lame dinner jackets. Enter Puttnam, and things get frosty. A few years back, his nice little film Agatha, about the ‘lost days’ of the Marple mistress, was loused up when Dustin nosed his way onto the cast list and set about changing everything in sight. Putters walked, and slagged off the Hoff in public. Later, when Chariots romped home at the Oscars ahead of Beatty-helmed fave Reds, Puttnam again flapped his chops in derision of the Shampoo shagabout. Hence no mutual fan club could be said to exist between Ishtar’s stars and their new handler. Puttner then stirred up things all the more by insisting on a clause in his new contract to the effect that he could not be held personally responsible for the failure of the film. Then he tried to get a breach of contract clause put on Beatty in the event of the budget going over $50 million. The budget promptly went over $50 million, but nothing happened. On completion of the edit, Dave refused to even look at the print, and told trade papers as much. This could be viewed as sabotage to the odd interested party, but to be honest it’s nothing worse than most incoming heads of any media enterprise perpetrate on the leavings of their predecessors, and Ishtar deserved every punnet of scorn Puttnam could pack. It’s revisionism-proof guff, to be sure – trying to like the thing, setting yourself up against all the naysayers down the ages, mentally calling to mind a cavalcade of lazy talking heads who you bet haven’t seen it slagging it off, combing every camel gag, hilarious ‘bad singing’ set-piece and gun battle for hidden comedy gold – it just leaves you rather tired and irritable. It’s a bad film in excelsis, in that its failure doesn’t entertain, unless you count that uneasy frisson of embarrassment on behalf of everyone involved, yourself, everyone you’re watching it with, and the entire human race by association for allowing it all to happen.

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