It's probably not accurate to call Jamie Lee Curtis' new film, 'You Again,' a comeback. Though she's not in the spotlight like she once was, she did offer up the likes of 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua' in 2008, 'Christmas with the Kranks' in 2004, and 'Freaky Friday' in 2003. In fact, except for her start as horror's beloved Scream Queen and a solid stretch of hits in the early '90s, the actress has always taken it easy, offering up only 60 acting gigs (from bit parts to starring roles) in the last 33 years.
But there's one film that sticks out on her resume, and makes me wonder why on earth she doesn't collaborate with her husband -- that comedic gem of a filmmaker, Christopher Guest. Twenty-two years ago this comedy achieved what most could only dream of -- Academy success with three nominations and even a win for Kevin Kline.
The film is 'A Fish Called Wanda.'
The premise is quite simple -- as simple as any collaboration between veteran British TV director Charles Chrichton and John Cleese could be. A team of two Brits (Michael Palin as Ken and Tom Georgeson as Georges) and two Americans (Curtis as Wanda and Kevin Kline as Otto) team up to rob millions of dollars in diamonds and live a life of luxury. But everyone has ulterior motives, suspicions, and alliances, which leads the team on a convoluted quest to grab the loot and cut loose ties.
Wanda and Otto aren't brother and sister, as they profess, but lovers tied together by talent and Otto's questionable grasp of the Italian language. They secretly finger Georges, and once he is arrested, he works with Ken to resolve the issue. While the stuttering Ken tries to off the prosecution's main witness to free Georges, Wanda and Otto try to get their hands on the diamonds, and find themselves entangled with a wimpy barrister (John Cleese as Archie) who complicates the matter further.
What's most remarkable about 'A Fish Called Wanda' is how every disparate part fits into such a successful whole. Whether discussing pieces of the film or the idea overall, it's not the fare one would think could earn Oscar nominations for writing and direction, and a supporting win for Kline -- one that would earn an IMDb MOVIEmeter rating of 7.8/10 (from 50,000 votes), and a Rotten Tomatoes Fresh rating of 96% (out of 46 reviews). But it works because it skillfully intermingles everything together -- the ridiculousness of slapstick and cerebral humor with a nice spoonful of action medicine.
In his '80s review, Roger Ebert wrote: "I do not often find big-scale physical humor very funny. When squad cars crash into each other and careen out of control, as they do in nine out of 10 modern Hollywood comedies, I stare at the screen in stupefied silence. What is the audience laughing at? The creative bankruptcy of filmmakers who have to turn to stunt experts when their own ideas run out? I do, on the other hand, laugh loudly at comedies where eccentric people behave in obsessive and eccentric ways and other, equally eccentric, people do everything they can to offend and upset the first batch." The overall film, even with the physical humor, came together in such a way that he gave it four stars -- a very sturdy thumbs up.
Instead of just going for the easy laugh, 'Wanda' looks to find new ways to exacerbate the comedy, employing old tropes with added cleverness and finding a way to web the pieces together for something familiar, but unexpectedly funny. Ken's attempts to kill the old witness, and accidentally offing her beloved pets, not only offers the most base and easy form of humor, but it also speaks to the character, an animal-loving stutterer. The animal element plays throughout, a way for Otto to once again try to sound smart as he gets existential, " "Nice fish, Ken. You know what Nietzsche said about animals? 'They were God's second blunder,'" and also a way for Otto to ultimately torture Ken with a sick "fish and chips" play on words later. Quirks have purpose, rather than being quirks to weakly tug at a laugh.
Characters become estranged before reconnecting in a continuous ebb and flow, and actions begin to mirror themselves. While it's goofy and funny to watch Otto grasp Wanda's breast early on, when Archie later mimics that action, it's not only an action to laugh at, but also a way to understand Wanda's sexual manipulation of these men -- how she's boiled it down to a science -- seductive to the point of ridiculousness. These strings or ties offer a journey between the laughs, so it's not only waiting to find a reason to chuckle, but actually journeying through the story to see how these events fit together.
Even in the more popular comedies of today, there's rarely purpose infused into all aspects of the story and performance. This is most notable when you look at subsequent comedies that borrowed ideas from 'Wanda.' When Lara Flynn Boyle gets hot for big words in 'Threesome,' she writhes like Curtis' Wanda, but to less comedic effect because it's nothing more than a silly means to make Boyle writhe. And even though the steamroller moment in 'Austin Powers' is a pretty classic scene in its own right, there's an added magic when it's not only a ridiculous scenario, but the means with which Ken finds inner power. It's both insanely stupid and insanely clever -- there is no better way to stop a foe than to let them tie the noose themselves.
But let's get to your thoughts...
-What is it about 'A Fish Called Wanda' that drew you in, or on the flip side, repelled you?
-Though the film boasted Palin and Cleese, it was Kline that stuck out and brought home the Oscar. Obviously, it speaks to how much he's under-used in the business, but could it also be a way to reinvigorate modern comedy? Actors who offer a more theatrical comedy, rather than being stuck in personality ruts? (Michael Cera, Will Ferrell, etc.)
-Watching this film, it becomes even more of a question of why Curtis doesn't star in Christopher Guest's mockumentaries. Perhaps it's a desire to not mix business and pleasure, but would you like to see her included the mix of his new film?
-One might not think that the film could survive into today's market without wildly bankable comedic stars at the helm, but the film did grab the record for longest amount of time to reach #1. It was released on July 15, 1988, but didn't hit the #1 spot until September 16, 1988. Would such a feat be possible today?
I won't be able to share next week's film right now, but tune into the old #cinemovieclub for an announcement of the next film next week.
Last Week's Film: 'The Proposition'