A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 206 – A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda – September 22nd, 2010

I don’t recall precisely when I first watched this movie, but I suspect it was with my mother. My family were huge fans of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, after all, and this is one heck of a John Cleese movie, not to mention Michael Palin. But the thing is, the cast member I always remember the best is Kevin Kline as the utterly ridiculous Otto. Sadly, Kline does not wear thigh high leather boots in this movie, but he does have a sort of manic gleam in his eye and he does steal pretty much every scene he’s in. Not an easy feat when that screen is shared with Cleese, Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis, but he does it. It’s amazing.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the plot because really, at the core, it’s a heist movie that focuses on the aftermath of the heist rather than the heist itself. It involves double and triple crosses and multiple attempts to kill off a witness. There’s burglary and perjury and the deaths of several small animals. And all of that could be played seriously, or at least semi-seriously, like the Oceans movies. But it’s not. Every bit of it is comedy waiting to happen. Every one of the four leads is comedic gold. So it’s not the plot so much as the characters.

First we have Wanda. Wanda is an American woman in London with her lover, George, to steal some diamonds from a bank vault. Helping them out is Ken, who seems to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades criminal who also has a love of animals and a rather extreme stutter. They need a weapons man and bring in a man Wanda claims is her brother, Otto. Except Otto is actually another lover of hers. They pull off the heist right in the beginning of the movie, then Wanda and Otto turn George in and plan to make off with the diamonds. But George hid them and gave the key to Ken. Ken hides the key and Wanda and Otto have to figure out where the diamonds are. So Wanda gets in close with George’s barrister, Archie. See what I mean about the double crossing? That’s the set-up for the whole movie. Wanda double crossing George with Otto, then double crossing Otto with Archie, and poor Ken’s all loyal to George, but dealing with Wanda and Otto. It totally could have been made serious. Suspenseful. Tense.

Instead we’ve got Otto loudly announcing an Italian menu to Wanda because the sound of the language turns her on, juxtaposed with a scene of Archie and his wife blandly getting ready to go to sleep in their matching twin beds. We’ve got Otto getting jealous of Wanda’s supposedly feigned affection for Archie and pulling faces while spying on them. We’ve got poor Ken, who loves animals dearly, being assigned to kill off the only witness to the robbery and accidentally getting her dogs instead. One by one. Oh sure, there’s more than a fair deal of comedy of embarrassment here. More than I can handle, actually, so I had to leave the room during one scene where an innocent family walks in on a naked Archie who was prancing around speaking Russian (turns out it’s not just Italian she likes). But a lot of it is flat out physical comedy.

Otto himself wouldn’t be nearly as funny if it was just a matter of reading his lines out. It’s in Kline’s delivery. It’s in his entire physicality, which figures into how he says everything. The Italian is spoken with grand gestures of the hands and arms. He hops and jumps and sneaks. Every movement is like watching a rubber band bend and snap and pull and twist. It adds something to it when he shouts “ASS-HOOOOOOOLE!” or insists that he’s not stupid or offers poor Archie some of the most violent apologies ever filmed.

There are some indelible images from this movie. The poor dogs and Ken’s reactions to every unfortunate miss he makes have stuck with me for ages. Otto leaping onto the bed while speaking nonsense Italian will crack me up every time. Even though I can’t watch it now, the naked Archie scene has been burned into my memory from my first viewing. And then there’s the apologies. Otto has already assaulted Archie once and Wanda demands he go and apologize since Archie is their key to finding out from George where the diamonds are. But when Otto goes to apologize, he mistakes Archie for a burglar and beats him up. Then realizes who he is and apologizes. Then beats him up. Then apologizes. It is one of those scenes you just know. It’s a reference that’s impossible to put into text because the reference is all in the delivery. It’s all Kevin Kline.

Like I said, the movie is full of great people. Cleese as Archie, Curtis as Wanda, Palin as Ken. Tom Georgeson as George Thomason (love that) is great as well, as is Maria Aitken as Archie’s wife, Wendy. I was very proud of myself for spotting Patricia Hayes as the unfortunate Mrs. Coady (the witness). And I think it’s worth noting that out of the cast who make multiple screen appearances, Mrs. Coady, George, Wendy and Archie’s daughter Portia are all played quite straight. They don’t pull faces or do any physical comedy. When George realizes that Wanda’s double crossed him he does lunge across the courtroom, but it’s not slapstick when he does it. Wanda climbing behind the judge is, but George trying to get past him to her isn’t. It’s wonderfully done, keeping the comedy and ridiculousness in the four main characters while the rest of the cast – and the rest of the world – goes about its business as normal.

This was a tough review to write. It’s one of those movies where I just want to catalogue all the funny bits and talk about how funny they are. But that’s not a review. I sort of did it anyhow, but I tried to do a bit more than a simple list. And besides, I can’t really express the best bits – Otto and Ken chief among them – in text. You just have to put the movie in and let it speak for itself.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

A Fish Called Wanda

September 22, 2010

A Fish Called Wanda

We put this in tonight because of Kevin Kline. Having so recently watched his Pirates of Penzance we very much wanted more crazy Kline humor. But when I first saw this movie I didn’t know who Kevin Kline was. Or Jamie Lee Curtis. (Yes, the woman from the yogurt commercials used to make movies back in the eighties and nineties.) I watched this for John Cleese and Michael Palin. It is the best thing they have done since the days of Monty Python.

This movie is a comedy heist film. I was going to say that it is a comedy based on heist films, but that’s not altogether accurate. It’s a serious movie about a jewel heist and the complete lack of honor among thieves, and it sort of has romance parts. There’s peril, mayhem and even murder, of a sort. It takes itself seriously and is never a spoof. Which makes it all the more hilarious. Amanda could tell you more about the types of comedy it employs. (She took a course in college you see.) It uses the rule of threes. It has quite painful comedy of embarrassment parts. It has the insane over-acting, physical humor and general clowning about of Kevin Kline. It has vulgarity and nudity. The whole thing is wonderfully written and acted.

What chiefly grabs me as I watch this for the umpteenth time tonight is how well plotted it is. It’s got betrayals and back-stabbings and plot twists, but it all flows so effortlessly from point to point. The movie starts with a jewel heist. Georges is the brains, his mate Ken does most of the work, Wanda is his moll and acts as getaway driver, and Otto is the muscle. No sooner have they escaped with the jewels and locked them up than the betrayals begin. Otto and Wanda turn Georges in for the robbery, but not before he manages to move the stolen loot to a location known only to him.

For the most part the action follows Wanda. She’s a femme fatal type who uses her sexuality to twist every man in the movie around her finger and ultimately she’s the one with the most devious plans. From the start she’s been sleeping with both Georges and Otto (though she claims to the rest of the crew that Otto is her brother.) Then she starts to seduce Georges’ lawyer Archie in the hope that he’ll find out where the jewels are and reveal the location to her. But Archie is so disarmingly honest and so completely unlike everybody else she has to deal with that she finds herself falling for him. Or at least that’s how it appears.

John Cleese wrote the screenplay and plays Archie Leach. It’s great to see him playing the straight man most of the time. He doesn’t have the kind of crazy antics that he used to on Monty Python or Fawlty Towers. He’s just a downtrodden man trapped in a loveless marriage with a spoiled daughter (played by John Cleese’s actual daughter I believe.) When the beautiful Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) throws herself at him he becomes completely besotted. It’s very much a midlife crisis thing. He also gives himself some of the best speeches. He gives a lengthy and wonderfully worded apology at one point, and he has a heartfelt monologue about how awful it is to be British and always be terrified of being embarrassed by the slightest thing – after which of course he is subjected to the most humiliating scene in almost any movie ever.

Ken is played brilliantly by Michael Palin. The character is afflicted by a horrible stutter, which Palin captures wonderfully. Stutters on film are often so poorly done. So clearly scripted. The way that Palin presents Ken as so frustrated by his own inability to communicate is wonderful. It’s never stated outright, it’s just in the performance, in the expressions. Ken is a sympathetic and uncomplicated fellow who would rather simply be with his fishes than mixed up with all these people. He’s an animal lover, you see, and doesn’t much care for humans. (You do have to wonder how he got sucked into this scheme. I suppose he just likes to do stuff for Georges.)

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Wanda as a very canny and intelligent woman. You can practically see the gears turning in her head as she works schemes within schemes. It must have been fun to have such a character to play. She’s a seductress, but a clever one and also an actress herself. When she first spies Archie she pulls out a pair of glasses and pulls off her earrings and transforms from a mobsters moll to an American law student in just seconds. She never seems to be at a loss for what to do and adapts to every twist with lightning speed.

Then there’s Otto. Oh, Otto. He’s just the dumb weapons expert and safe cracker, but don’t call him stupid! Kevin Kline delivers such a completely amazing performance that he easily steals every scene he’s in. The character is such a buffoon and the way that Kline portrays him is so wonderful that you find yourself looking forward eagerly to his next appearance on screen. He, too, gets a memorable apology scene. He has an overblown sex scene that is inter-cut with shots of Archie and his wife preparing for bed. It’s fantastic physical comedy. He even has a running-gag style catchphrase – which is not to be quoted in a family friendly blog but is nonetheless useful in my day-to-day life. Particularly when driving.

I am not surprised to note that Kevin Kline won a best supporting actor Oscar for this role. It’s memorable, hilarious and fun. And as I mentioned it was the whole reason we put this movie in to watch tonight in the first place.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment