October 17, 2016

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

A team of bank robbers undertake a jewel robbery, only for two of them to double-cross the others and land the leader George (Tom Georgeson) in police custody. They subsequently discover George relocated the loot before he was arrested, sending the duplicitous Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) on a mission to seduce George's barrister Archie (John Cleese) - so long as her idiot ex-CIA lover Otto (Kevin Kline) stays out of the way. Meanwhile George dispatches his stuttering offsider Ken (Michael Palin) to assassinate the sole witness who can identify him in court.

A Fish Called Wanda was a huge commercial hit back in 1988, managing to not only become a success in the United Kingdom but breaking out to an international audience as well. It won a pile of awards, notably a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Kevin Kline, and is regularly cited in 'best comedies' lists by audiences and film critics alike. It seemed well worth returning to the film and seeing how it has fared 28 years on.

In short, A Fish Called Wanda remains a comic masterpiece. It is an enormously funny comedy that benefits from strong performances and characters, a tight and focused storyline, great jokes and gags, and a really well defined sense of purpose. I think it is one of the best comedy features ever made.

The film has a very strong identity borne out of the Ealing Studios tradition; its director Charles Crichton also directed the legendary film The Lavender Hill Mob. John Cleese of course rose up through the ranks of British television and film comedy from the 1960s, and as a result it brings with it much of that traditional British sensibility of character-based farce. At the same time it is plotted and paced in very much an American tradition, and the addition of Kline and Curtis to the lead cast help give the production a sort of trans-Atlantic feel: a meeting between British and American comedy.

The film's screenplay, by Cleese, very cleverly constructs exaggerated and very tightly defined characters, and then pushes those characters into situations that specifically challenge them. Wanda is a deceitful, self-interested woman who uses affairs with men as steps on a ladder to get what she wants - until she finally meets a man to whom she's genuinely romantically attracted. Otto is a complete idiot who is enraged when people call him stupid, and so he's placed in a situation where his stupidity is so regularly showcased. Ken, an ardent animal lover, is sent to assassinate an old woman but through misfortune keeps killing her pets instead.

Crichton's direction is nicely unobtrusive, showcasing the comedic performances rather than any overt visual stylistics. It is the perfect kind of direction for this sort of film: it frames the comedy clearly, and stays out of the way. John Du Prez's musical score is very effective as well. It is actually rather rare to notice a strong soundtrack for a comedy, but Du Prez does an exceptional job of it with themes that adjust in tempo and emphasis based on whether the scene is uplifting, sad, or contain action sequences.

The core of the film is the performances, and the four leads each do brilliantly. The real stand-out is Kevin Kline, who throws himself into the role of Otto with a remarkable amount of energy and theatricality. It was far from his first role, but I suspect it was the first to really make audiences sit up and take note of just how talented an actor he is. He works so well with the other cast members as well: it's a performance so good that it really does improve the other performances around it.

Of course the film isn't entirely perfect. For one thing like many comedy films of the period it contains a slightly unpleasant run on homophobic humour, as Otto pretends to be gay and attracted to Ken - much to Ken's apparent disgust. It is also rather uncomfortable viewing watching Michael Palin perform Ken with a stutter for comic effect. It's a well-researched and fairly accurate stutter, but mocking the disabled really does sit quite badly from a 21st century point of view. We're a better culture now than we were then. That said it's fair to say that Ken is portrayed positively and with a clear affection on Cleese's part. It helps to undercut the unpleasantness of the stutter jokes.

Those slightly unfortunate issues aside, A Fish Called Wanda continues to stand up as one of the best British comedies ever made. Some years later Cleese and his co-stars reunited for the vastly inferior Fierce Creatures; they probably should have left well alone. Films this well assembled are a difficult kind of lightning to bottle twice.

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