Judge Ryan Keefer likes fish and chips. And chips. And chips...
Our review of A Fish Called Wanda, published April 21st, 1999, is also available.
A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood.
A Fish Called Wanda was a film that was one of the better, more satisfying comedic efforts of the '80s. While others might have flocked to the teen coming of age comedies of the era, A Fish Called Wanda appealed to a larger demographic, and the adults could take their Monty Python-enthusiast children with them. The film even earned several Oscar nominations, including a win for Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Kline, A Prairie Home Companion, The Big Chill). And after a barebones release several years ago, is it worth double-dipping on this?
Facts of the Case
Co-written by Cleese and director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob), the film chronicles the theft of $20 million in diamonds from a London outlet. The group is, shall we say, a tad eclectic. You've got the ringleader Georges (Tom Georgeson, Irish Jam), his companion Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Trading Spaces, Halloween), Wanda's "brother" Otto (Kline) and Georges' brother Ken (Michael Palin, Brazil). Sure, the group is mixed, but they're slightly to the right of eccentric. Georges is the most normal or well-adjusted of the bunch, granted. But as it turns out Wanda and Otto aren't siblings, because siblings aren't so consummative in normal levels of society. Wanda's perfect idea of foreplay is when Otto speaks Italian, even if they are superficial touristy words like mozzarella or provolone. Otto is the thug of the group, but he gets confused from time to time because Buddhism isn't about "every man for himself." However, be forewarned if you call him stupid. And Ken, well, poor Ken has a stuttering problem and a fondness for animals (perhaps simultaneously), and couldn't harm a soul. As primary custodian of the loot, Georges is eventually double-crossed but doesn't go down without a fight, because he knows where the loot is, and where the key is to get it. Georges has possibly told the location to his barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese, Shrek 2, Die Another Day), so Wanda has to get closer to Archie, despite Otto's objections. So in a movie where everyone is lying to everyone else, who winds up with the diamonds?
Not having seen A Fish Called Wanda in a while, I had completely forgotten about the storyline involving the Cleese and Curtis characters, and that's probably the biggest storyline in a film with several of them. I guess I was one of those people who was so lost in Kline's performance (which, admittedly, is hilarious) that I forgot that as Archie, Cleese does effectively portray an older man in a loveless marriage that becomes enamored with Curtis, who tells him she's an American law student learning about the British judicial system.
Is it a convincing portrayal? Probably not, I mean it is a comedy after all. But he does enough to show that he's in a marriage without any form of vitality, and when he sees Curtis, he brightens up, and knows that it could be his last shot at fun in his life, consequences be damned. And does Kline deserve his Oscar? Well, put up against the other nominated actors and their works, Kline performs with an over the top job as a tough, but very ugly American, and every scene he's in is funny. Curtis goes almost unnoticed in all of this, but her performance is perhaps the strongest and most consistent of the film and she's great in the role. Crichton's direction (in a film some didn't want him to do) allows for the cast to perform to their best, and there's not a lot of noticeable cutting or editing to set up a joke, everything seems to run in long continuous takes, making the jokes funnier.
What's nice to see is that after a barren first release, MGM and Fox, although on a slight delay from a release earlier in the year, have given A Fish Called Wanda a two-disc special edition treatment. In the first of several pleasant surprises, Cleese contributes a commentary track for the film. At first I was not really surprised at how dry the track was, and it's pretty quiet overall. As it turns out, Cleese might be delivering some university comedy classes of sorts, and it does get into the ins and outs of what he thinks worked or didn't work comedically in a scene, and what could be done better or worse. It's kind of neat to listen to, plus he also puts in his fair share of details on some of the scenes in the film, and talks about the production as a whole, including pointing out the skewed value sense of empathizing with a suffocating stutterer (while killing a dog is OK). It's a worthy complement to the film. There's a trivia track that pulls some from this commentary, but pulls up the usual irrelevant information, except for the occasional Nietzsche quote.
Up ahead to disc two, the half hour documentary "Something Fishy" includes new (or recent) interview footage with the stars and a couple of selected crew members. The cast recalls what they first thought of Crichton and how he worked on set, and the other non-Python cast talk about working with Cleese. It does cover the making of the film to some extent, but features more on cast recollections than an actual chronological look at the production, and it's an OK extra. The more recent featurettes kick off with something called "John Cleese's First Farewell Performance," an interview piece with Cleese when he first decided to leave comedy, for lack of a better word. But it shows Cleese during the rehearsal process, and how he structured some of the characters during writing. Palin is interviewed as well to provide some depth on his longtime friend and collaborator, and the Americans are interviewed on set to discuss the film and their familiarity with Cleese. A separate featurette on Cleese's farewell runs longer (about a half hour) and covers even more on the production, including a funny headstone for one of the dogs, and Palin singing a bit of the "Lumberjack Song" in German on the set. It does wander into some personal territory near the end (where Cleese discusses his previous marriages), but it's another decent addition. "Kulture Vulture" was a mystery up until the introduction, which turns out to be a 15-minute look at the locations used in the film and how they look now. There is a dated introduction by Cleese for the film which is kind of funny, and some stills galleries and the trailer complete the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a fan of virtually anything that the Monty Python alumni have done, it was mildly disappointing that the only time that Cleese and Palin were in the same scene together was once near the end of the film. Maybe it was intentional, maybe not, but as a fan, that's my only gripe, and a petty one at that.
Well, where the last version of this disc had none, this version has…some. It's not as all-encompassing or exhaustive as one would think, but they're sufficient enough and this is as definitive as I think we'll get. So if you've already got it, feel free to upgrade on it.
The film and filmmakers are found not guilty. The court will be temporarily recessed for a long overdue sushi dinner.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with John Cleese
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