Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: "A Fish Called Wanda" is Still Amazing (Happy B'day, Kevin Kline)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 153 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Running time: 109 minutes (1 hour, 49 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Charles Crichton
WRITERS: John Cleese, from a story by Charles Crichton and John Cleese
PRODUCER: Michael Shamberg
EDITOR: John Jympson
Academy Award winner

COMEDY/CRIME with elements of romance

Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Marie Aitken, Tom Georgeson, Patricia Hayes, Cynthia Caylor, Ken Campbell, and Geoffrey Palmer

Set in London, a crooked foursome: heist man Georges Thomason (Tom Georgeson), his partner and close friend, Ken Pile (Michael Palin), George’s American girlfriend, Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Otto (Kevin Kline) a weapons expert who pretends to be Wanda’s brother, but is really her lover, successfully pull off a big time diamond heist. They are about to get away with it when someone informs on George, who is promptly arrested.

George, however, never trusted Otto, so he hid the diamonds away, and only Ken knows where the new hiding location is. Meanwhile, Wanda seduces George’s barrister (attorney), Archie Leach (John Cleese), in hopes that he can discover and reveal to her the stolen loot’s location. There are, however, complications. Archie really falls in love with Wanda, but jealous Otto keeps interfering every time Wanda is about to get intimate with Archie and get the info she and Otto need. As George’s trial approaches, the desperate situation to learn the location of the diamonds really tests the notion of “honor among thieves.”

Nearly two decades after its initial release, A Fish Called Wanda remains a truly great comedy. I laugh at it now as much as I did when I watched in numerous times in the late 80’s. There is any number of reasons the film works so well as both a comedy and a crime film. One is timing, which is required for comedy. If the cast is in synch, it’s probably because they have good chemistry, and good screen chemistry gives a ring of truth to the proceedings – a sense of verisimilitude. The audience can suspend disbelief and believe that the actors are who they’re pretending to be and are really living in the film’s situations. One of the really good examples of this is the scene in which Archie Leach’s wife, Wendy (Marie Aitken), returns home and nearly catches Archie seducing Wanda. While Wanda and Otto, who’d also snuck into the home, scurry behind curtains, we get to watch Cleese’s hilarious performance as he tries to explain to his wife why he’s suddenly appeared in their upstairs living room with a bottle of champagne and two glasses – when he didn’t even know that she’s returned.

The film is also very well written in terms of characters and well-directed in terms of allowing the cast to develop and play the characters. The script is written by the most famous alum of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese, and Charles Crichton, a filmmaker at the legendary Ealing Studios, where he directed another great heist film, The Lavender Hill Mob (the film to which Wanda was often compared when Wanda was release in 1988). Both brought their sensibilities for creating truly mean-spirited, venal, vain, and eccentric characters. American filmmakers are good at making mean characters, but they often transform them into heroes – especially in comedies. From beginning to end, there is never any doubt that the characters in A Fish Called Wanda are liars, cheaters, thieves, and sometimes murderers, but we’re supposed to laugh at them. Their wicked ways cause them many inconveniences and hardships, and their vanity causes them embarrassment. Other characters are constantly picking at the things that make them vain and eccentric. This is comedy and fiction, so it’s OK to laugh at and even like these “bad guys.”

A Fish Called Wanda is also marked by what’s often called tour-de-force performances, and much of it has to do with the fact that the entire cast, especially the four leads are highly skilled actors, but are also excellent comic actors. Each does a simply fabulous job selling their characters to the audience. The most memorable performance in the film probably belongs to Kevin Kline, who won an Oscar for his role as the supposed-CIA agent, Otto. However, he’s only the cherry on top of what remains a great, great comedy.

9 of 10

1989 Academy Awards: 1 win: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Kevin Kline); 2 nominations: “Best Director” (Charles Crichton) and “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen” (John Cleese-screenplay/story and Charles Crichton-story)

1989 BAFTA Awards: 2 wins: “Best Actor” (John Cleese) and “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Michael Palin); 7 nominations: “Best Film” (Michael Shamberg and Charles Crichton), “Best Actor” (Kevin Kline), “Best Actress” (Jamie Lee Curtis), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Maria Aitken), “Best Direction” (Charles Crichton), “Best Editing” (John Jympson), and “Best Screenplay – Original” (John Cleese)

1989 Golden Globes: 3 nominations: “Best Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical” “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical” (John Cleese) and “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical” (Jamie Lee Curtis)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


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