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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Charles Crichton and John Cleese’s ‘A Fish Called Wanda’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Charles Crichton and John Cleese's 'A Fish Called Wanda'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“A Fish Called Wanda”
Dir: Charles Crichton
Criticwire Average: A

For a comedy with gags about stutters, dogs getting murdered, the social repression of the English and utter vulgarity of Americans, “A Fish Called Wanda” has much more warmth than it theoretically should. Directed by Charles Crichton of Ealing Studios fame, and co-written by Crichton and “Monty Python” alum John Cleese, “A Fish Called Wanda” involves a diamond heist gone wrong and the love affair between a barrister and a femme fatale, but it’s mainly about nationalist insecurity and the strained relationship between the United States and England. Cleese skewers Americans’ crass stupidity and the English’s paralyzing timidity, filling the screen with outrageous, exaggerated caricatures, yet he still clearly has a deep, abiding affection for both peoples. It’s “A Fish Called Wanda’s” ability to express sincere love and comic derision for all of its subjects that makes it one of the funniest films ever made.

George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and Ken Pile (Michael Palin) are two criminals who plan a jewel heist. They hire two Americans, Wanda Gershwitz and Otto West (Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline), to help them steal the diamonds, but little do they know that Wanda and Otto are planning to double-cross the both of them. After the successful robbery, Otto betrays George to the police only for both of them to realize that George has moved the diamonds behind their backs. In order to get the diamonds, Wanda decides to seduce Archie Leach (Cleese), George’s barrister, to see if she can get the information about the location of the diamonds. Unfortunately, Archie starts to fall for Wanda while Otto, her current lover, becomes extremely jealous, and all the while Ken tries to murder an elderly lady who witnessed the getaway but keeps accidentally killing her dogs.

There are a few reasons why the comedy in “A Fish Called Wanda” works so well. First of all, Cleese and Crichton establish strong characters with simple, recognizable desires and an airtight plot that functions as a straight heist thriller. The comedy comes from the characters’ inability to achieve their desires, and it’s the pursuit of those desires that moves the plot forward, which provides the film with non-stop comic momentum. Secondly, “A Fish Called Wanda” has an exceptional sense of comic rhythm, physical and verbal, allowing characters to gracefully bounce off one another like tennis balls against rackets. Kline is the obvious standout, but John Cleese is one of the funniest comic actors alive and he’s most exceptional at playing frustrated, embarrassed, and confused men beaten down by life and those around him (Basil Fawlty of “Fawlty Towers” is this character at its peak). It’s nothing short of brilliant to watch him flounder around in farcical situations, reacting with a mixture of horror and amazement at every little thing that happens to him. Finally, there’s so many different kinds of comedy — witty banter, sight gags, broad slapstick, and dark farce — that all somehow comes together as a cohesive whole. Though this isn’t exactly surprising coming from former “Python” members, it’s still thrilling to see a film indulge in broad and subtle comedy, to examine the differences between America and England while also having the good sense to flatten someone with a steamroller.

But the true MVP of “A Fish Called Wanda” is Kevin Kline, who rightfully won an Oscar for his performance as Otto, the outrageously confident idiot who embodies just about every positive and negative stereotype of America. Otto is an Anglophobic meathead who’s good with a gun and bad at anything involving actual thinking, but he’s so insecure about his intelligence that he refuses to even entertain the possibility he’s not an intellectual. Kline’s storied stage career provides him with the necessary skills to make Otto larger-than-life comic creation — his enunciation of every syllable he speaks, the way he moves like a ballet dancer even when he’s running around and kicking people, and that everything from a subtle facial movement to a profane rant is perfectly exaggerated without being over-the-top. There may not be a funnier delivery of the word “asshole” in any other film past and present. Though Kline has performed Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan, his performance in “A Fish Called Wanda” may be his best film work to date.

In spite of all the hilarity, it’s difficult to ignore the genuinely tender heart of “A Fish Called Wanda,” even though it only fitfully exposes itself. It’s in the brief moment when Wanda considers leaving Otto for Archie only for her to find out that he isn’t rich, or Archie’s sincere monologue about how Americans are alive and the English are dead inside. It’s even in the darkest of places, such as Ken’s delighted, relieved expression when he finally kills the elderly lady after two previous mishaps. Though they can be double-crossing liars and criminals, Crichton and Cleese clearly like all of their characters and see them as the people they are outside of their national affiliations. Yes, they sometimes can be cruel, like with Ken’s stutter (although it produces a scene so funny that thinking about it makes me crack up), but their heart is always in the right place, and they give everyone the endings and victories they deserve. “A Fish Called Wanda” understand that a mature comedic sensibility coupled with a fundamental decency makes for a successful film. So whatever you do, don’t call it stupid. 

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

I also like it when people have great and overwhelming passions – passions that rule their lives and are so outsized they seem like comic exaggerations – and then their passions are deliberately tweaked. In “A Fish Called Wanda,” for example, Michael Palin is desperately in love with a tank of tropical fish, and so Kline, who is equally desperate about discovering the whereabouts of some stolen jewels, eats the fish, one at a time, in an attempt to force Palin to talk. (The fact that Kline also stuffs French fries up Palin’s nose gives the scene a nice sort of fish-and-chips symmetry.) Another thing I like is when people are appealed to on the basis of their most gross and shameful instincts, and surrender immediately. When Jamie Lee Curtis wants to seduce an uptight British barrister (John Cleese), for example, she simply wears a low-cut dress and blinks her big eyes at him and tells him he is irresistible. This illustrates 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. “A Fish Called Wanda” is the funniest movie I have seen in a long time; it goes on the list with “The Producers,” “This is Spinal Tap” and the early Inspector Clouseau movies. Read more.

Noel Murray, The A.V. Club

The original intent was to make an homage to Ealing Studios caper comedies (with Ealing veteran Charles Crichton at the helm), but once Cleese cast the canny Jamie Lee Curtis and the fleet Kevin Kline as ruthless American crooks out to con diamond-heister Tom Georgeson, the movie’s nature changed. A wacky farce about double-crossing and outsmarting became an affectionate, blackly comic study of the differences between Americans and the British. Cleese’s commentary deftly explains what Crichton does so well with “A Fish Called Wanda,” particularly the way the director lets scenes play out with a minimum of cutting and only a few economical camera moves, so the actors can build a comic rhythm. But Cleese gives himself credit too, for letting Kline and his old Python buddy Michael Palin (playing a stuttering, animal-loving hit man) re-work their dialogue in rehearsal. The ensemble ping-pongs off Cleese, the straight man, who plays a beaten-down barrister assigned to defend Georgeson, while fending off Curtis’ deceptive sexual advances. Then Cleese gets smitten with Curtis, and sees a chance to throw off the confines of his proper, sexless British marriage and enjoy some American recklessness. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The Dissolve

John Cleese, who co-wrote the screenplay and is sometimes cited as an uncredited co-director alongside his writing partner Charles Crichton, clearly has no intention of attacking Americans, and he directs just as much criticism (also affectionate) at the stereotypical English tendency toward inaction and emotional reserve. Nonetheless, the way he defines the two American characters, Wanda and Otto, perfectly reflects the love-hate relationship many foreigners have with the United States. That’s especially the case with Kevin Kline’s Otto, who functions as the film’s villain in most respects, but is also its most vital element — the source of most of its unruly energy. Like all great caricatures, Otto exaggerates key characteristics both for comedic effect and as a means of achieving a more galvanizing truth than respectful subtlety can manage. He’s simultaneously admirable and appalling, and that’s a pretty accurate précis of how Americans collectively tend to be perceived abroad. Read more.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Charles Crichton, the veteran British director who made his biggest mark with “The Lavender Hill Mob” in 1950, teams up with actor, writer, and executive producer John Cleese in another madcap caper comedy…that’s every bit as funny as its predecessor. Like many of the best English comedies, much of the humor here is based on character, good-natured high spirits, and fairly uninhibited vulgarity (a speech impediment and dead dogs supply the basis for some of the gags). Read more.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Tribune

The movie’s basic joke holds that the overbearing, unselfconscious Americans will do anything and say anything (and usually as loudly as possible), while the timorous British are nearly too polite to breathe. When the contrast is played with some structure and finesse — as it is in a wonderful scene in which Cleese’s wife surprises him with Curtis, and Kline pops out of a closet — it is brilliantly funny. But just as often, Crichton goes for a broadness and hysteria that drains the humor, mainly because the director’s over-enthusiasm upstages the characters. (It probably wasn’t necessary to have Curtis literally froth at the mouth to express arousal, or to have Kline shove french fries up Palin’s nose during an agonizingly extended torture scene, or to have Cleese humiliated so thoroughly when some strangers discover him in the nude.) A spirit of nervous excess pervades the film, as if Cleese and Crichton believed that obviousness was essential for capturing the American market. The last thing they want to be accused of is British understatement — the very quality that made the Ealing comedies what they were. Read more.

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

The perfect Cleese character is self-obsessed, short-tempered and disconnected. He goes through life convinced that everybody else is crazy. This sense of elevated madness is missing from his performance in “A Fish Called Wanda,” and from the film itself. Each character has some redeeming moments, but the redeeming moments of no two or three characters ever overlap. The screenplay doesn’t seem to have been thought through. Mr. Kline’s Otto West is described as being incredibly dumb, though the actor clearly is not. The dialogue reports funny things instead of showing them. The movie remains in a limbo halfway between the informed anarchy of Monty Python comedy stripped of all social and political satire, and the comparatively genteel comedy of “The Lavender Hill Mob.” When, toward the end, someone stuffs ketchup-smeared french fries into Mr. Palin’s nostrils, “A Fish Called Wanda” seems to have turned into a private joke to be enjoyed only by the members of the cast and crew who made it. Read more.

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