September 19, 2017

John Cleese and A Fish Called Wanda at Cornell Cinema

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I am gonna come clean now: I didn’t know who John Cleese is until two weeks ago. My best friend was appalled when he asked if I wanted to go to this Cleese talk together, and I looked at the event title and said “sure, I loved Kirshner’s class.”

But now I’m converted!

The Monty Python star wrote, directed and stars in the brilliantly silly heist movie, A Fish Called Wanda, which screened at Cornell Cinema on Sept. 10. Cleese and professor Jonathan Kirshner, government, engaged in a prescreening conversation, which is just as funny and nutritious as the film.

They started off by talking about heist movies in general. The particularly interesting thing about them is that we spend so much time with the bad guys that we inevitably end up rooting for them, even though they are, after all, “the bad guys.” “They’re not very bad, you see,” Cleese stood up for his characters, saying that “they don’t kill people!” (Of course the three adorable puppies don’t count.) But it is true that compared to other heist movies where there is a lot more blood and violence — take Baby Driver as an example. Wanda has a certain sense of lightheartedness to it, while still having high dramatic stakes.

When asked about the inspiration for Wanda, Cleese said casually that he just thought “four funny people” would be a good idea. You bet they’re funny – an American con-artist Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her incredibly possessive brother Otto (Kevin Kline), a fish-loving stutterer Ken (Michael Palin), and of course there will be a posh English lawyer, too – the mighty John Cleese himself plays Archie. Wanda and Otto double-cross their head guy George (Thomas Georgeson) after a diamond robbery, but things go south when they find out George has hidden the diamonds somewhere else and only Ken has the key. Wanda tries to woo Archie, who happens to be defending George, for information, while Otto keeps getting in the way out of jealousy. The rest of the movie is basically about how these flawed human beings trying to get what they want while embarrassing themselves big time along the way.

You have to admit that after thirteen drafts of rewriting characters and revising the plot, this is a pretty solid script. Besides having the element of meticulous planning and executing “the perfect crime”, which is essential in all heist movies, Wanda is more so a comedy, a romcom if you would like. When talking about his writing of the story, Cleese mentioned how comedy are similar to thrillers, where you first come up with set pieces, stitch them together, and later come back to save the rest of the movie.

Thematically, comedy is critical. Beneath the surface of laugh-out-loud jokes, Wanda is a harsh social commentary in disguise, offering surprisingly concise observations on the human condition. For example, Cleese had in mind the English’s ultimate fear of embarrassment when he set out to create Archie. “Almost everything can be embarrassing — the only goal of a dinner party is to not be embarrassed! I have to make fun of that,” said Cleese. The Americans are ridiculous on a totally different level: Otto is the “ape” pretending to be an intellectual, who can’t stand to be called stupid yet can’t even fathom why “London Underground is not a political movement.” Wanda is shallow, pretty and seductive, obsessed with phony accents and foreign languages like any other stereotypical American sweetheart. These characters are undoubtedly all flawed human beings, but that’s exactly what made them believable and lovable. Although we might never commit armed robbery or eat fish alive from a fish tank (readers: absolutely feel free to do anything you want, I’m just speaking for myself), at least some part of their story is universal to the collective human experience. Archie, long dead inside, falls in love with Wanda for her free-spiritedness above all things. And don’t we all get fed up by social decency sometimes and just want to become someone else that we’re not?

At the end of the conversation, Prof. Kirshner remarked that heist movies like Wanda are no longer getting made. “Well, every security system has a computer now,” Cleese half-jokingly replied, “and everyone has a cellphone.” That’s certainly part of it, but to me, comedians with a sharp eye for our fundamental problems are harder to be found.

That’s probably why you should go watch Wanda if you have not yet. Have a good laugh, and worry about the human condition later.


Ruby Que is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].