Saturday 7 August 2010

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

One of the best comedies ever put to film, A Fish Called Wanda represents the apex of John Cleese's career. The comic genius co-wrote, produced and of course stars in the film, a mad caper about four crooks back-stabbing each other in search of stolen diamonds in London, and the pompous English lawyer who unwittingly gets caught up in the plot.

George (Tom Georgeson) is the British criminal plot mastermind; Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) his American lover and co-plotter; Otto (Kevin Kline) is the weapons man pretending to be Wanda's brother but he's her real lover; and Ken (Michael Palin) is the animal-loving Englishman with a brutal stutter, loyal to George but easily manipulated by all.

After pulling off the diamond theft and stashing the loot in a safe, Wanda and Otto double-cross George and get him arrested. Wanda is about to double-cross Otto and flee with the diamonds when she realizes that George has outwitted them and re-located the jewels. Much to Otto's horror, Wanda develops a plan to seduce George's lawyer Archie (Cleese) to try and learn where the diamonds are hidden, while from behind bars George sends Ken on a mission to eliminate the elderly lady whose testimony is crucial to convicting George.

It is rare enough for a movie to create one memorable comic evil character; in A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese creates a trio of distinctly memorable characters. Dubious as it is to make fun of a disability, Palin's stuttering Ken is one of the funniest characters ever to grace a movie. Some of his scenes are hilarious to the point of hysteria. Curtis is perfect as Wanda, alternating between schemer and seductress, with one unique character flaw: sudden extreme arousal at the sound of foreign languages.

Good as Palin and Curtis are, Kline is on another level of brilliance entirely. He unleashes Otto as a force of nature, an American criminal barging his way through London with a devastating combination of combat skills and colossal stupidity. While comedies rarely receive any Academy Award recognition, even the stodgy Academy got it right this time and recognized Kline with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Having done the hard work of creating these characters and putting them in the hands of the terrific cast, Cleese has the relatively easy task of bringing to life Archie as the typical English lawyer, stuck in a loveless marriage and trying to maintain his composure while being seduced by Wanda and targeted by Otto.

In addition to being a straight-out comedy feeding off outstanding characters, A Fish Called Wanda also finds the time to poke fun at Americans, the English, and the relationship between the two countries. None of it is too serious, but Wanda and Otto do represent the freedom and aggression that the United States exports, and Archie has the typical political character of England: too easily seduced by America as represented by Wanda; while finding Otto's quick propensity for violence rather distasteful.

When creating an intellectual farce, it is too easy to lose balance and sink into either absurdity or self-importance. A Fish Called Wanda cuts through the water in a display of perfect harmony between hilarity and intelligence.

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