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 | , , ,

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