June 27, 2010

filmsgraded.com:
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Grade: 67/100

Director: Charles Crichton
Stars: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline

What it's about. A popular comedy and crime caper set in London and made with a partly British and partly American cast. Promiscuous and supremely confident sexpot Jamie Lee Curtis lives with stuttering animal lover Michael Palin, but she is officially the girlfriend of Tom Georgeson. She nonetheless is having a liaison with sadistic macho man and weapons specialist Kevin Kline, who is falsely introduced to everyone as her brother.

All four successfully execute a lucrative robbery of a jewelry store. Kline and Curtis call the cops on Georgeson to have the loot for themselves, but Georgeson and Palin have already doubled crossed their American partners, and the jewels are gone. The imprisoned Georgeson hires mannered upper class barrister John Cleese to defend him. Curtis promptly seduces Cleese in the hope that Cleese will learn from Georgeson where the jewels are kept.

Hammy Kevin Kline becomes outrageously jealous of Curtis' intrigue with Cleese, who is unhappily married to wealthy and lovely but shallow and loveless Maria Aitken. They have a teenage daughter, Cynthia Caylor (the real-life daughter of John Cleese), who takes after mother.

Inevitably, Cleese decides that Curtis is much more fun than his dislikable upper crust spouse, and Curtis decides that the multilingual Cleese is preferable to the foolish and exasperating Kline. Our two leads have a happy ending, and since it is a movie, Palin loses his stutter, and thus has something to celebrate as well.

A Fish Called Wanda was the final film in the long career of director Charles Crichton, whose previously best known movie was the classic comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Crichton was 77 years old when Wanda was made.

The film's in-jokes include John Cleese's character, named Archie Leach. This is of course the real name of Cary Grant, the most popular romantic leading man in Hollywood between 1935 and 1965.

How others will see it. A Fish Called Wanda was a box office smash, but it took a while. Per imdb.com, the film holds the record for longest time to top the box office: eight weeks. Typically, films peak in their first week of wide release, the exception is for indies that generate buzz and gradually receive extensive distribution (e.g. My Big Fat Greek Wedding) but never compete for the top slots, which tend to go to films geared toward kids and young adults.

The imdb.com user ratings for A Fish Called Wanda are the most consistent I've ever seen, 7.8/10 across the board.

The movie is also noteworthy for its success at the American and British Academy Awards, which normally reserve honors for dramas instead of comedies. Kline won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his hammy performance, and the movie also garnered screenplay and director nods. At BAFTA, it received a whopping nine nominations, including an entry in each major category. Cleese and Palin, the two Monty Python alumni, won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

How I felt about it. It's a clever movie, much better than one would expect prior to seeing it. (We particularly enjoy Cleese's upside-down apology, even though we suspect camera trickery.) The spirit is right, which can be credited to a combination of direction, casting, and story.

In particular, Maria Aitken is perfect as the intelligent and educated but spoiled and condescending wife of hapless lawyer Cleese. Kline is even more obnoxious than in his major movie debut Sophie's Choice, but since it is a comedy his zeitgeist is forgivable.

The other weak link involves Curtis. She has the confidence to pull off the role, but she could never keep the loyalty of all four male leads. Not with her chin.

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