Starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin.
Four things mark this film out as one of the greatest British comedies ever made: terrific acting, awesome script, iconic images and tremendous comic pace. There is literally not a moment to spare and every word is a gem.
The storyline is a simple enough tale of cross and double cross, set in the London legal world of barristers and of gangsters trying to get away with a bloodless robbery that takes place at the outset of the action.
Who can ever forget Jamie Lee Curtis’ leading lady, the irrepressible, charismatic and completely scheming Wanda (not a fish) determined to get away with the diamonds and such of the leading men as may survive her machinations? Who would dream that Kevin Kline’s psychotic, deadly ex-CIA fiend, Otto, is a dim would-be philosopher with a penchant for delivering signature abuse to other London drivers and a fetish for high-heeled boots? Who does not sympathise with Michael Palin’s animal lover, incompetently doomed to assassinate a brace of four-footed friends? And who would in their wildest of dreams have imagined the smooth-talking increasingly corrupted John Cleese would so poignantly parody the sex-starved, hen-pecked, middle-class husband with his emasculating wife and cosmetic-surgery-obsessed horsy teenage daughter? Or that swooning US housewives after the film came out would take him for a sex symbol?
The script barrels along with an elegance deriving from its authorship by seasoned comedian Cleese. A range of comic genres are employed with consistent brilliance: irony, sarcasm, slapstick, bathos, you name it. Every character’s plots and moves are elaborately shown so that the viewer can decipher when a plot turn advantages one or other of them or is really a catastrophe that they have to pretend to like, and in doing so convince the others that they have no ulterior motive.
So on this basis, we watch the peerless Wanda decorate her cleavage and stride over to her next conquest, supervised by her “brother”, the vicious Otto who is really one of her lovers. He, naturally, has no intention of letting Wanda’s advances lead to anything that would make a hyper-jealous man jealous, whereas she has to negotiate in advance with him how far allurement can be permitted to go. Conversely, when their brother-sister cover is about to be blown, Otto seamlessly switches strategy to pretend he is gay so as to deflect suspicion. And the target of this implausible deception is the victim of his earlier verbal bullying, “K-K-K-Ken”, the stammering animal-loving would-be assassin of the little old lady down the street who happens to be the only witness to the robbery of the opening scenes. And the little touches are perfect, the interchanges between the characters in circumstances of crossed actions leading to disaster. Consider the mountainous, manipulative, controlled rage of our heroine Wanda when psycho Otto stupidly scotches her latest hard-won romantic set-up with the unsuspecting barrister, culminating with her question: “Well, what would Plato do??”
One of the key sources of hilarity is the Olympian contempt that Otto has for the English, in whose midst he as a red-blooded, gun-toting American finds himself. He can and, uproariously does, perfectly parody the English for their accents, expressions, neuroses, hypocrisy and cowardliness. Wonderful running jokes include the vehicle accidents he causes by driving on the incorrect side of the road and yelling “Asshole!” each time the thud of crumpling metal or splintering of glass are heard “off-stage.”
London of the 1980s is the glorious backdrop for the action. It is the traditional tea-drinking English world that predates the City’s more recent identity as a hub of mega-city international culture-mix. This London is the capital of the United Kingdom, not as it now is, the capital of Europe. And all the expected icons are there- Tower Bridge, the then new and trendy converted wharf flats along the Thames, the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court), the Inner Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, Hatton Garden where the diamond dealers are, and so on.
Some words in their specific iconic scenes will never be the same again for the viewer: “Revenge!” delivered by a man on a slow steamroller about to crush his enemy into the concrete; “I apologise!” (spoiler withheld); and “How nice to see you.”, in a situation of unprintable naked social embarrassment. One favourite scene, however, has to be the most memorable interrogation scene in cinema, where the fate of the eponymous fish of the title is decided. This extraordinarily malevolent interrogation, conducted entirely using one piece of fruit, a tank of tiny fish and a plate of delicious-looking chips with tomato sauce, is absolutely grippingly emotionally painful but at the same time groaningly hilarious.
The slower pace of many more modern comedies, which wait for the viewer to “get it”, has no place here. The viewer has no time to be bored even for an instant, and the music carries you along. This music score is simply splendid, and guitar solos by John Williams are gems in themselves.
This is a very British film with structure, depth and not a dull second. A genuine delight of a comedy with perfect character acting by stars both British and American of the day. The movie has a complex and gripping script, a sequence of unforgettable iconic scenes, and a pace that is sustained and confident. When you need to cheer someone up, this light-hearted film will do it and convince them that life is well worth a laugh.
~Review by JRM