Friday, March 20, 2015

Watch This: A Fish Called Wanda

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Directed by Charles Crichton

The crime comedy can be a tricky genre to pull off.  For every Fargo (1996), Ocean's Eleven (2001), or The Ladykillers (1955), there's a Gigli (2003), Tower Heist (2011), or The Ladykillers (2004).  One of the best, and certainly one of the funniest, entries in this genre is British director Charles Crichton's farcical tale of double-crossing jewel thieves, A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

The film, penned by co-star and Monty Python alum John Cleese, follows a small group of criminals caught up in a web of unending betrayal following a London diamond heist, as they each attempt to swindle their accomplices and keep the loot for themselves.  English gangster George (Tom Georgeson) and his stuttering, animal-loving right-hand man Ken (Michael Palin, another former Monty Python member) have planned the robbery, and are joined by Americans Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto (Kevin Kline) in executing the plan.  Wanda and Otto are lovers, but pose as brother and sister so that Wanda can charm and manipulate George and Ken.  After the robbery, Wanda and Otto rat George out to the police, but realize afterward that he has stashed the diamonds in a secret location.  Wanda then plots to seduce George's lawyer, Archie Leach (Cleese), hoping to learn the whereabouts of the diamonds.  Archie, stuck in an unhappy marriage, falls prey immediately to Wanda's flattery and vivacity, but their attempts to consummate their relationship are repeatedly undermined by Otto's jealousy and unfortunate timing (in what is perhaps the film's funniest scene, Archie is caught in the buff during a tryst with Wanda at a friend's flat when new tenants arrive unexpectedly).

Meanwhile, George has assigned Ken the task of knocking off an elderly woman who was the only eyewitness to the robbery, but he accidentally kills her three Yorkshire terriers in the process, much to his chagrin.  Further plotting on the part of Wanda and Otto, as well as a misstep during George's trial, lead to career and marital ruin for Archie, who then decides to steal the loot himself.  What ensues is a hilarious series of reversals and double-crosses, including Otto's unorthodox but effective torture of Ken, and a climactic showdown at Heathrow Airport.

A Fish Called Wanda stands apart from most other crime comedies for a variety of reasons.  For starters, with its madcap duplicities and unexpected twists, the film features tighter plotting than most standard crime films.  Secondly, its criminal protagonists are by no means bumbling or inept, as is often the case; the diamond heist itself goes off without a hitch.  Wanda also manages a different comedic tone than most of its genre counterparts.  The film's betrayal-heavy plot, profanity, and mean-spirited humor differentiate it from the breeziness of Ocean's Eleven, but its broader, slapstickey qualities make it feel much lighter than darker comedies like Fargo.

The film's strongest asset is its game cast, all of whom turn in excellent comedic performances.  Cleese wisely plays Archie with more subtlety than he is sometimes known for, making his character's transition from brow-beaten repression to risk-taking exuberance all the more believable.  Palin is hilarious as the hapless Ken, whose accidental offing of the witness's terriers provides some of the film's most riotously funny moments.  Curtis is a revelation in what was really only her second comedic film role (after 1983's Trading Places), bringing an irresistible vibrance to the role of the femme fatale, Wanda.

The film's real standout, however, is Kevin Kline, whose performance as the violent, jealous, insulting, and obliviously dim-witted Otto mines every facet of the character to its fullest potential.  Otto thinks of himself as an intellectual (he reads and mis-quotes Nietzsche) and hates to be called stupid, even though he clearly is.  He likes to speak Italian while being amorous with Wanda, but most of the words he knows are foods like "parmigiana" and "mozzarella," so his romantic chatter sounds like a jumbled Olive Garden menu.  He is also vehemently Anglophobic, showing his disdain for all things English with constant use of the term "Limey" to denigrate everything from Englishmen to wet cement.  He also takes great joy in tormenting Ken for both his stutter and his love of animals.  Otto is an utterly unlikeable person, but Kline brings great charisma to the role and balances all of Otto's quirks perfectly, and the result is a character who is repellent but undeniably watchable.  The Academy Awards are notorious for their slighting of performances in comedic roles, so it is a testament to Kline's work that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Fish Called Wanda.

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