Friday, June 6, 2014

Classics Revisited: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Directed by: Charles Crichton.
Written by: John Cleese.
Starring: John Cleese (Archie Leach), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda Gershwitz), Kevin Kline (Otto), Michael Palin (Ken Pile), Maria Aitken (Wendy), Tom Georgeson (Georges Thomason), Patricia Hayes (Mrs. Coady).

A Fish Called Wanda is frequently named one of the funniest movies of all time. When AFI did their 100 Years, 100 Laughs series in 2000 – it placed 21st overall – ahead of such classics as This is Spinal Tap or anything made by Charlie Chaplin. I saw the film once, way back in high school, and enjoyed it immensely – but in the years since never really had an urge to revisit it. When the excellent film site The Dissolve announced it as their movie of the week, I decided to re-watch it (something that you will see as a kind of recurring theme among these classics revisited posts). Watching it again, all these years later, I once again enjoyed the film immensely. It is a perfectly structured comedy – a deliberate throwback to the Ealing comedies of the 1940s and ‘50s, directed by one of that studio's veterans, Charles Crichton. By casting two Americans among the four principal cast members, the film also became a classic American vs. Brits comedy. And yet, I still cannot fully get on board with A Fish Called Wanda being called one of the greatest comedies of all time – at least for me. Comedy, perhaps more than any other film genre, is very subjective. What causes one person to fall into fits of hysterical laughter can leave another person cold. I was not left cold by A Fish Called Wanda – it is frequently very, very funny, is endlessly quotable, and contains a number of fine performances. And yet, if you asked me to name the funniest films I have ever seen, A Fish Called Wanda would be fairly far down the list.

The film wastes no time in establishing who its four main characters are. Archie Leach (John Cleese) is a stiff upper lipped lawyer, who we see briefly arguing and winning a trial. Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a scheming American thief, smart, capable and sexy. Her cohort is Otto (Kevin Kline), who fancies himself an intellectual who reads Nietzsche, but is really an idiot. Ken (Michael Palin) is a stuttering animal lover, who obsesses over his fish. The later three have been brought together by Georges Thomason (played by Tom Georgeson – which I just find amusing) to steal some diamonds. The robbery goes off without a hitch, but then the double crosses start. Otto, who is in cahoots with Wanda, who he thinks he is dating, but who Ken and Georges thinks is her brother, phones a tip into the police saying Georges is responsible for the robbery. But when they go to the safe house to recover the loot, they find it has already been moved. Ken has the key to a safety deposit box, but doesn’t know where it is located. Georges may trade the jewels for a reduced sentence, so Wanda attempts to get close to Archie, his lawyer, to try and find out if that is going to happen – and also if Georges suspects Otto or herself as the source of the police tip. Hilarity ensues.

And much of A Fish Called Wanda is hilarious. I could describe the jokes, but what would the point of that be? What I will say is that all four main performances are in their own way wonderful. Cleese, who wrote the screenplay, casts himself as the straight man – everyone around him is going insane, and he tries his best to maintain his dry, British demeanor. He is trapped in a loveless marriage to Wendy (Maria Aitken), so when a sexy, young Yank like Wanda takes interest in him, he has no problem believing it to be true and not questioning her motives. Curtis for her part has never been better – she’s sexy to be sure, and someone who all the men view at various times as a sex object, but the movie never views her as such. She’s the smartest one in the room, juggling multiple lies and deceptions, and doing so effortlessly. Palin is hilarious as the stuttering Ken – nowhere more so than when he is assigned by Georges to kill the old lady who is a witness against him, and ends up killing her three dogs – one at a time – instead. A Fish Called Wanda is not afraid of black comedy – which makes it even better.

Best of all has to be Kevin Kline as Otto. Amazingly, Kline won an Oscar for his performance in the movie – and although it was a weak year in supporting actor that year (seriously how many people even watched all six hours of Little Dorrit, and Alec Guinness in it? Does anyone want to make the case for Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob or Martin Landau in Tucker: The Man and His Dream? Perhaps River Phoenix in Running on Empty, but at the time, he was the young upstart – and the Academy always makes them wait for their Oscar) it’s hard to argue that Kline didn’t deserve to win. What’s remarkable is that I cannot think of another performance this broadly comedic to win an Oscar in the modern era. It’s an excellent performance from start to finish by Kline – from his mounting anger at being called stupid, his hilariously horrible Italian, to his gay come-ons to Ken to throw him off the truth and perhaps best of all the worst movie sex I can recall in a movie, Kline nails every moment. Still, this is a comedic performance that ends in him literally being run over by a steamroller – and surviving. Kline practically plays a live action Looney Tunes character in the movie. I love the fact that Kline won an Oscar for this performance – yet still cannot believe he did.

The direction by Charles Crichton is excellent as well. He lets scenes play out at their own pace, he doesn’t try to juice the action along with fancy editing, preferring longer takes to let the actors build the comic momentum. Comedies would be better today if more directors followed his lead.

I’ve spent most of this review praising A Fish Called Wanda. It deserves all the praise. I cannot think of a single element of the film that’s really worthy of an extended criticism or smack down. It all works. And yet, I also still cannot quite say that A Fish Called Wanda is one of my favorite comedies. It is hilarious in many ways, with great performances, a witty script and top notch direction. Yet, would I rank it as the 21st best comedy of all time or even close to that? I wouldn’t. This is more of a problem with expectations than anything else. When you hear Roger Ebert comparing the film to The Producers and This is Spinal Tap, you expect this to be a comedy like that – one that endlessly re-watchable, and have you in stiches each time you see it. For many, A Fish Called Wanda is a film like that. For me, it isn’t. I enjoyed every aspect of the film – just not quite as much as everyone else seems to.

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