Tuesday 14 July 2009

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Director: Charles Crichton
Stars: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin

Having not seen A Fish Called Wanda probably since I taped it off British TV, I was utterly surprised to find it was made in a 1.37 aspect ratio: usually known as full screen. I can't think of another film of this era and this prominence that was made in full screen. Perhaps this was due to Charles Crichton, veteran English director of comedies, who hadn't made a feature film for the big screen since He Who Rides a Tiger in 1965. I'd be interested to find out the real reason if that isn't it. Perhaps it was intended to be a TV movie but became something so much more.

It has a dream cast for a 1988 comedy, reminiscent of the sort of dream casts Crichton used to deal with back in his Ealing days when he could juggle people like Alec Guinness, Alastair Sim, Stanley Holloway, Peter Sellers and Sid James. Here he gets a couple of Pythons: John Cleese and Michael Palin, showing that they are still on top of their games fourteen years after the series ended and five years after the last Python film. If that wasn't enough, he also gets Jamie Lee Curtis in the period when she looked most utterly gorgeous and Kevin Kline in full on psycho nutjob mode.

Like many classic English comedies, it's a caper film. Georges Thomason is the leader of a gang of thieves who plan and successfully execute a jewel robbery for millions of pounds worth of loot. Their downfall is greed because everyone's in it for themselves while putting on whatever best front seems appropriate at any particular point in time, only Ken Pile and his powerful stutter are loyal to the boss. Ken is played by Michael Palin, who based the stutter on his father and ended up founding the London Centre for Stammering Children. He's tasked with rubbing out an old lady who is the only witness in the case, but instead gradually tortures himself, both physically and mentally, because he only seems to rub out her dogs instead, one by one. I should add that he's a huge animal lover, which fact gives us our title, and he's truly abused in the name of cinematic art.

Chief amongst those trying to rip him off for everything they can get is his right hand woman and girlfriend Wanda Gershwitz, as played magnificently by Jamie Lee Curtis, who has never looked better, not even in True Lies, perhaps Arnie couldn't speak the foreign languages that drve her wild here. Her real boyfriend here is Otto, who she passes off as her brother and brings into the gang as the resident psychopath with a weapon fetish. Beyond teaming up to screw over Georges, they are just as willing to screw over each other.

And if everyone else is here is awesome, I'm not sure how to describe Kevin Kline who manages to go to the level above awesome, whatever that happens to be. His Academy Award win in the Best Supporting Actor slot was well deserved, beating Alec Guinness no less. The cast are quite possibly so natural in their roles because they were too busy trying not to burst into stitches at Kline's antics, many of which were obviously improvised. Apparently during their sex scene, Jamie Lee Curtis had to bury her face in the pillows because she was laughing so much at what he was doing with his face. He spends the entire film doing stupid things, especially when people call him stupid. Don't call him stupid.

That leaves John Cleese, who plays a barrister called Archie Leach (yep, Cary Grant's real name), who is assigned to defend Georges. He's critical to Wanda and Otto because after they turn Georges into the cops, they discover that he's already moved the loot and he threatens to hand it over to the cops if his gang don't get him out. So Wanda has to seduce yet another character in order to find out where the jewels are, but this time she really falls for him. This is definitely an unconventional romance but it works well because of the chemistry. All these characters obviously loved working with each other, so it's no wonder they all returned for a second film together, Fierce Creatures. The only surprise is how long it took: nine years.

This is a real gem of a movie, the best work writer John Cleese has done since Fawlty Towers, and very possibly the funniest and most consistent comedy of the eighties, with the possible exception of This is Spinal Tap, and one made on what most people would call a shoestring budget. It cost an estimated $7.5m but it pulled in many times that, becoming a sleeper hit that took the record of how long a film could take to reach the top spot at the box office. Writing in an era when the new blockbuster hits number one on week one of release and disappears after a month, it's hard to imagine how this one took over two months to reach the top of the chart.

Utterly English, and thus massively self deprecating, it does branch out to embrace the other side of the pond in spirit. Beyond featuring Curtis and Kline heavily as half of the principal cast, there's a good deal of back and forth between the characters hurling nationalist abuse at each other in the most hilarious ways. Perhaps this is why Americans took this film to heart, even though they tended to cut one of the key scenes out entirely for TV broadcast because of idiotic political correctness. This is not a politically correct film, make no mistake about that, and it's all the better for it. I won't go another decade without seeing it again and that's a promise to myself.

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