Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Fish Called Wanda, 1988

Directed by Charles Crichton
Written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton
Starring John Cleese, , and

This is one of the great ones. 

Kevin Kline's performance completely merits the Oscar that he won for it. In fact, his stream of curses at John Cleese may alone merit it, or maybe the scene where he and Jamie Lee Curtis have sex, or the scene near the end with him, Michael Palin, and the fish and chips, or probably any individual scene, actually. His performance is like a series of comedy arias.

But this movie is John Cleese's. It's the Ealing Comedies for its own time; it's Python in the regular -- non-surreal, non-Terry-Gilliam-infused -- world; it's everything hilariously frantic about Fawlty Towers. Cleese brings together everything he does well as an actor, puts it into the tight story that he wrote, and even gives us some emotional reality to ground all the farce. He's why this movie is what it is.

Not to take away anything -- anything -- from Jamie Lee Curtis or Michael Palin. She is over the top in her scheming, her utter willingness to use anything or anyone to accomplish her ends (one example: the moment when she meets John Cleese and says, perkily, "I'm American"). And yet we still, somehow, keep rooting for her. 

And Michael Palin? The first time (of the many times) that I saw this movie, I found his character grating. As I've watched it over and over, I find his performance funnier and funnier. Not only is his Ken a completely formed person, but his task in the story almost threatens to become a Sisyphean tragedy. But, to quote Otto (Kevin Kline's character), "Almost."

It's so good. All the other characters are wonderful. The movie isn't calling attention to itself as a movie -- it's invisible in just the right way. 

Of course it's in the Pantheon. Along with the other brilliant 1988 British vs. Americans comedy caper classic, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it practically created the Pantheon. (By the way, for theaters such as the Brattle in Cambridge, MA, A Fish Called Wanda and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels would be a fantastic double bill.)

Archie and Wendy Leach (John Cleese and Maria Aitken)
hear Otto (Kevin Kline) tell "terrible lies"

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