This past weekend, in one of my Monty Python reviews, I offhandedly mentioned the Pythons’ film careers after their work in the troupe, and it may surprise you to know that I haven’t actually seen much post-Python work from most of them.
Aside from Fawlty Towers, there isn’t any Python-heavy property I’ve seen a lot of, apart from a few of Terry Gilliam’s films and Cleese’s appearances in big franchises, I thought it might be time that I indulged some of their later work, and as I have this film sat on my shelf, and I’ve never heard anything but praise for it, so I was hoping it wouldn’t compromise the image of those involved that I’d built up.
I’m very pleased to say that it didn’t, in fact, it might have enhanced my perception of them.
A comedy really only has to be one thing to be successful: funny. It can have a terrible plot and characters, but with enough laughs it can work; A Fish Called Wanda is not only incredibly funny, but also extremely well thought-out; using a classic bank robbery run-around to wrong-foot us at every turn, leaving its characters in the most awkward, and hilarious, of situations.
There are not many films that can make me laugh until I feel faint, A Fish Called Wanda is one such film. I laughed until my sides hurt, then just when I thought I knew what was going on and I was safe, it made me laugh some more.
It makes for an incredibly engaging film all around, making the most of what it has at its disposal, mainly its characters, there’s a few memorable turns here, John Cleese as the buttoned-up English barrister, a role he was seemingly born to play, Kevin Kline as a murderous psychopath, who also happens to be a complete oddball, and the stuttering animal lover Ken, played by Michael Palin, who I feel should be singled out as a special mention for his incredibly believable stutter. As a stutterer myself, I had resigned myself to people overplaying it over the years, but Palin delivers a performance that utilises the afflictions comedic values, without ever feeling exploitive.
As can be expected from Cleese, the timing of everything is perfect, as is the often rapier-sharp script. It serves up a new hilarious turn at just the right time, when we’re least expecting it, but at the time when something needs to happen, it’s all spaced out and paced so well that there’s a new showpiece scene with almost clockwork regularity, which helps the film from slowing to a crawl.
Between these showpieces there’s a fairly involved plot going on too, a classic crime caper that keeps you on your toes as to who to really believe, there’s a planned double cross in there, a seduction of a barrister, and a few dogs get killed, all the classic stuff really.
Everyone within the film seem to be perfectly suited to the role they’re playing, and look like they’re having tremendous fun at the same time. Cleese probably gives his best performance here, as does Kline, who remarkably picked up an Oscar for his part in this film, a rare feat indeed for a comedy film. Jamie Lee Curtis is charming, yet devious, and Michael Palin plays the put-upon accomplice with great aplomb.
It’s a film with a tremendous amount of perfectly working parts, like a pristine grandfather clock, each component serves to help the next one work as much as it does itself; everything complements each other, there are wonderful parallels drawn between Archie’s (Cleese) life with his wife, and Otto’s (Kline) with Wanda (Curtis). One that sets in motion a course of events that trickle right down to the films conclusion, a satisfying cherry on top of this wonderful trifle of a film.
Was it what I was expecting? No, I can’t say it was, although in retrospect, I don’t know why. I should have known that any comedy written by Cleese would have more than a touch of the madcap, and Wanda is very madcap, but with a grounding in gritty reality that makes the film that more believable, and the characters that more likeable.
Since a comedy can only really be judged on how much it makes you laugh, I guess I better judge this as being great, because it made me laugh so much that at one point I thought I might actually pass out, I was so light-headed. A delightful romp that is excellently paced, and expertly acted. A true comedy classic.