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by Michael Bowen & r & & r & A Fish Called Wanda & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ow did a low-budget black comedy about four double-crossing jewel thieves become 1989's most-rented videotape? An unlikely boy (stiff British barrister John Cleese) gets the con girl (fast-talking Yank Jamie Lee Curtis), so that solves the equation for romantic comedy. But A Fish Called Wanda also appeals with its combination of slapstick (Michael Palin's stuttering animal lover) and pseudo-intellect (Kevin Kline's Nietzsche-quoting psychopath). By splitting directorial duties (elderly master Charlie Crichton handled the camera placement while Cleese dealt with the actors) and by obsessing over details (he wrote 13 screenplay drafts over six years), Cleese created a classic comedy that's silly-smart-ridiculous-loving all at the same time.





In the commentary and featurettes on the new two-disc collector's edition, Cleese reveals many insights about his craft. For example, says Cleese, conflict in comedy works best not when it's between characters but within a single character. That's why the humor works when Cleese's lawyer, normally proper and respectable, starts doing outlandish things like burgling his own home and cavorting nakedly in other people's apartments.





The conventional wisdom is that farce works better onstage than in a movie (because theater audiences can view the entire stage at once). But Cleese points out how Crichton, by minimizing cuts and close-ups in one door-slamming sequence, duplicates the wide-angle hilarity of onstage slapstick.


Cleese was puzzled that audiences weren't upset by the murder of an old lady and her dogs but got all squishy when Kline started munching on Palin's tropical fish. Once a character is introduced as minor and unlikable, he decides, they release themselves from any obligation to sympathize.


Of course, careful planning was supplemented by great casting. Kline's most quoted lines -- "I'm disappointed!" and "Don't call me stupid" -- are only part of the dim-bulb ninja-posing show that he puts on in his Oscar-winning performance. (The trivia track reveals that Kline based his oafish hit man on G. Gordon Liddy.)





For all their care in filming and editing Wanda, however, Cleese and Crichton mistakenly deleted one scene. It had Cleese trying to obtain crucial information and overcome Palin's character's stutter by rummaging all through a flat for something to write with -- a pencil, a typewriter, toothpaste, blood, anything. Like the released version of Wanda, it's frantic, well thought out and very funny.

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