Jan 31, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No. 65

DIR: Charles Crichton

A Fish Called Wanda is a silly film, and I mean that in the best possible way, it is gloriously silly, and yet it is beautifully constructed, almost musical in the way it conducts it various characters and storylines and peppers the jokes through the roughly 100 minute running time.

But it is perhaps expected that A Fish Called Wanda should be both silly and meticulous, as those are the two qualities for which its writer (and uncredited co-director) John Cleese is famous. He worked on the screenplay for Wanda for six years; honing every joke, working and reworking every storyline, polishing every line, every moment, to a mirror shine (what went wrong with spiritual follow up Fierce Creatures remains something of a mystery). It's not, though, this polish that makes Wanda such fun to watch as much as it is the wonderfully natural and loose way that everything comes together.

Cleese himself takes the lead as an uptight barrister named Archie Leach (a reference to Cary Grant's real name). Leach is defending George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) the leader of a gang of jewel thieves, but the other gang members want the loot and so Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) seduces Leach so that she and her lover Otto (Kevin Kline) can learn where the diamonds are without tipping off George. What's really great about this film is that the story just works; the jokes are the spice, but the basic story and characters would be interesting even without them.

That said, this is a comedy, and as well as it functions as a fun caper movie, it's the jokes you'll remember. Reviewing comedy comes down to the simple question; is it funny? Well, A Fish Called Wanda must rank among the funniest films ever made. The choice of then 77 year old Charles Crichton to direct is indicative of how the film plays; Crichton made a lot of the famed Ealing comedies, including The Lavender Hill Mob, which is a clear influence here. While there are some coarse moments in the film and both language and humour are allowed to be more explicit than in the heyday of Ealing the film still feels rather old fashioned, delighting in intricate dialogue and in scenes of high farce for its laughs, rather than the shouting and bodily function based 'comedy' we tend to see now.

Cleese is great, once again playing the role of a stuck up and frequently exasperated authority figure , but also generating enough warmth to make his romantic scenes with Curtis (19 years his junior) if not entirely convincing then at least not creepy. Most of the time though, Cleese plays straight, generously leaving his co-stars to pick up the big laughs. The biggest go to Kevin Kline, whose performance won him an Oscar, incredibly rare for a comic performance. Kline, previously known as a dramatic actor is pitch perfect as the incredibly stupid Otto, a man who despises pomposity in the English, yet is blind to his own and repeatedly admonishes people "Don't call me stupid". Kline's timing is perfect; look at the wonderful scene when, after shopping George to the Police, Otto and Wanda go to retrieve the jewels and discover that George has hidden them, Kline's "Okay... Okay... DISAPPOINTED" is so beautifully timed that it makes the whole scene.

A less surprising, but equally brilliant, comic turn comes from Cleese's old Monty Python cohort Michael Palin, who is priceless as Ken, a stammering animal rights activist tasked with killing the eyewitness who could put George in jail (something he fails to do in sequences of escalating absurdity and hilarity). Palin nails the reality of Ken's stammer, playing it perfectly (it is based on his father's voice) but also plays it to the hilt for laughs with the timing of a masterful musician.

Curtis has less overt comedy to play (though the one scene where she does get to cut loose is one of the film's best) but she makes Wanda interesting and real. She's a good enough actress to make us believe the process as Wanda warms up to Archie and she's certainly beautiful and sexy enough that we believe how hard and fast Archie falls for her. Also worth mentioning is a wonderfully dry performance from Maria Aitken as Archie's wife.

The bottom line is that, perhaps 20 years and probably a similar amount of viewings since I first saw it, A Fish Called Wanda had me roaring with laughter again last week as I watched it to prepare this post. That's a good enough argument for its inclusion here all by itself.

Wanda and Archie's date night
A brilliant piece of farce, expertly and economically shot by Crichton and played with pitch perfect timing by the whole cast.

The Kah... The Kah...
Cleese and Palin's first scene together in the whole film, as Ken desperately tries to tell Archie something vital.

Wanda: [after Otto breaks in on Wanda and Archie in Archie's flat and hangs him out the window] I was dealing with something delicate, Otto. I'm setting up a guy who's incredibly important to us, who's going to tell me where the loot is and if they're going to come and arrest you. And you come loping in like Rambo without a jockstrap and you dangle him out a fifth-floor window. Now, was that smart? Was it shrewd? Was it good tactics? Or was it stupid?
Otto: Don't call me stupid.
Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?
Otto: Apes don't read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole.
Archie: How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?
Otto: You're the vulgarian, you fuck.

[Otto dangles Archie out a window]
Archie: All right, all right, I apologise.
Otto: You're really sorry.
Archie: I'm really really sorry, I apologise unreservedly.
Otto: You take it back.
Archie: I do, I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair comment, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.

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