' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: A Fish Called Wanda

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Great Movies: A Fish Called Wanda

Currently my colleagues at Anomalous Material are engaged in a tournament to determine the greatest comedic film of all time which posits a basic question - namely, what is comedy? Mel Brooks has famously said: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." The esteemed Roger Ebert has written: "People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing." Colin Firth has offered: "Almost every comedy you see is about people making all the errors of judgement possible. Good comedy is when it works on this scale because it is psychologically very real." And Aristotle (who wasn't Belgian, as "A Fish Called Wanda" helpfully tells us) wrote that comedy is "the action of men worse than ourselves."

If you ask me, comedy, genuine comedy, is Kevin Kline as American thief, pseudo-philosopher Otto masquerading as CIA agent "Harvey Manfrenjensenden" in a stunningly dubious effort to cover for his "sister" Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who is attempting to seduce English Barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) whose wife and daughter have just unexpectedly turned up which leads to Archie's wife calling Otto "stupid", the one adjective Otto will not tolerate being directed at him under any circumstances, all of which builds to a line that might seem a simple throwaway but, considering the circumstances, could very well be, to this reviewer, the funniest single piece of dialogue uttered in 100 plus years of cinema.

"We haven't been to the pub for fifteen years."

This sequence, arriving at the halfway point of the 1988 Charles Crichton directed film, is rivaled only by "Dr. Strangelove's" initial War Room scene. It does not contain anyone falling into an open sewer and dying, per se, but to watch John Cleese's baffled facial expressions throughout is to witness a man dying a couple dozen little deaths over a few minutes time. Kline's Otto is desperately trying to be serious as he intones as this supposed CIA Agent - "It's a smokescreen?" - but fails most miserably. All of the major characters here are making errors in judgement, from Wanda cheating with a married man to Archie cheating right back to Otto just being Otto to Archie's wife mistaking a precious jewel as a present intended for her. All the actions seen here are essentially being committed by people worse than ourselves.

"A Fish Called Wanda" is a transatlantic enterprise, its cast headlined by two Brits and two Yanks, and it refrains from the "Airplane!" style of relentlessness, trusting that a few moments of quiet are but a small price to pay for fully formed characters thrust into a story tailor made to accentuate their awesome absurdity.

Its starting point is a jewel heist masterminded by George (Tom Georgeson), the character most capable of avoiding errors in judgement which, of course, makes him the least funny of the main players, utilizing a team of his trusted accomplice Ken (Palin), his girlfriend Wanda and, of course, Otto, only pretending to be Wanda's brother when, in fact, he is her lover, though she does not necessarily seem intent on making this relationship last. When it turns out Wanda and Otto are scheming behind the other duo's back, George gets picked up by the police and carted off to prison where Leach is assigned as his Barrister. Unfortunately, Wanda and Otto's plan of absconding with the precious jewels runs aground when it turns out the place George had hidden the goods is no longer the place where they are stored. In an attempt to discover their new hiding place Wanda determines to seduce and then betray unsuspecting Archie, saddled with home life not so much routine as barren, who feels her charms work him over illustrating, as the esteemed Roger Ebert noted in his original review, "a universal law of human nature, which is that every man, no matter how resistible, believes that when a woman in a low-cut dress tells him such things she must certainly be saying the truth."

Blending tart, ironic British humor with the conventions of an American rom com Cleese's layered screenplay serves up an unlikeable quartet that is always loveable. Consider Palin's Ken, tasked with taking out the old woman who was the heist's one witness and with testimony could put George behind bars. A devout animal lover who tends to a tank of tropical fish, Ken's hits go spectacularly awry as rather than eliminate the woman he proceeds, one by one, to knock off her trio of beloved dogs instead, wracking him with terrible guilt. A dog getting run over? Not that humorous. A dog getting run over by a guy who weeps at the death of a fish? Hilarious! Time and again "A Fish Called Wanda" trots right up to the line, threatening with supreme veracity to cross it, but never does, not even with Ken's secondary trait of an astonishing stutter. It's worth noting to anyone who may question the running gag's taste that Palin's own father suffered from a stutter and rather than employ the stutter as one of those typical screenplay facile keys - as in, once the stutter is overcome the character has "triumphed" - it exploits it at crucial junctures as a firm obstacle. Ken triumphs when he finally gains a fantastic, if prolonged (anyone? anyone?), bit of "revenge!"

Cleese's Archie Leach, meanwhile, takes his cue from the real life man from whom the character gained its namesake and is but an ordinary Englishman thrust into a tantalizing series of events that allows him to rip off the shackles of his staid life - "Do you have any idea what it's like being English? Being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing?" - and become a full fledged Leading Man who, in a sly wink to the conventions of the genre, will find himself caught up in the Climactic Chase To The Airport to get the girl.

Ah yes, the girl. Curtis. Wanda. Outwitting the movie's bevy of males at every turn she is not merely the token lady or the love interest but the miana, the nucleus, the straw that stirs the drink. A modern update on the classic archetype of the screwball heroine she is sophisticated, tough, ambitious, she gets that which she wants first by using Archie and then by helping him to rekindle his long since dormant manhood. Sure, Archie is married but the marriage is quite clearly running on fumes - his wife Wendy (a deft Marie Aitken) is a self involved part-time shrew - and our allegiance to the brewing courtship between Archie and Wanda is sealed once we get a glimpse of the married couple's twin beds. Seriously? Twin beds? Don't kid yourself, viewer, this is a union justifiably falling by the wayside and the conclusion allows for Archie to finally step up and take matters into his own hands, though this isn't a case of the woman being tamed, per se, and we all know who will be making the decisions when this duo arrives in Argentina.

All of which brings us to the fourth and final member of this comedy rock group. Rightfully earning an Oscar for his supporting work Kevin Kline's acting perfectly melds with Cleese's writing to bring Otto, riddled with quirks, to life of only the most high definition sharpness. An unquestioned commentary on blowhard Americans he is a know-it-all who knows nothing, getting called out (by the other American, mind you) while remaining disdainful of anything British. At one moment he unwelcomingly finds himself stuck in cement causing him to bellow, "F---ing limey cement!" Apparently if it had been American cement, it would all be okay. He uses foul language sparingly but effectively - never superflously - including the finest implenation of the eff-you insult mankind has ever been privy to and consistently finds himself in the wrong, often trying to then make it right only to re-emphasize the wrong. Reactionary, uncouth, delusional, he manages to effectively re-invent the Dead Man Who Isn't Really Dead Scene and seems insistent his own armpits smell like Obsession by the other Klein. I don't like making lists - oh, who am I kidding? I love it - but the three greatest comedic performances of all time are as follows: George C. Scott in "Dr. Strangelove", Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Carribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" and Kevin Kline in "A Fish Called Wanda".

It broke no new ground and was not a step forward in the genre of movie comedy but this was never its intent. It is merely a professionally made, perfectly paced and driven by original characters played by actors ideal for their respective roles set loose in a story that generates just enough empathy to counteract the zaniness. You could be a movie fan all your life and never see something like this. It would be a film of epic proportions. It would be....the perfect comedy.


Simon said...

Well said, sir. That is all.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you for your support in this matter.