August 5, 1988

A Fish Called Wanda & Eighties Comedies

On an 80s comedy binge lately: Trading Places, Ruthless People, and A Fish Called Wanda. All
three illustrate how much comedy movies have changed over the decades: all three of these movies have intricate, clever plotting that fits together neatly like one of those expensive wooden jigsaw puzzles:
  • Trading Places - Two commodities traders swap their snooty blueblood nephew (Dan Aykroyd) and a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) to see if blood is more important than environment. Aykroyd and Murphy get their revenge through a commodities trading scam that's impossible to understand without an advanced degree. Blackface? Yes, Aykroyd dresses up as a Rastafarian for no good reason.
  • Ruthless People - a riff on The Ransom Of Red Chief, Danny Devito wants to murder his wife Bette Midler for her money, but she's kidnapped first. DeVito dares the kidnappers to kill her, but Midler and the kidnappers turn the tables on him.
  • A Fish Called Wanda - In the aftermath of a diamond heist, Jamie Lee Curtis schemes to steal the loot from her boyfriend, with help from her side piece (Kevin Kline), but she falls in love with her boyfriend's barrister (John Cleese) while pumping him for information. Blackface? Yes again, Michael Palin as a Rastafarian, again, for no good reason.
I've summed up these plots at the most superficial level, but in reality there's tons of clever twists and turns. Modern comedies aren't built like this. My favorite comedy of the last 15 years is The Forty Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow's movie directing debut. I imagine many people would pick an Apatow production as their favorite comedy of the new millennium. Apatow's comedy model is to film scenes of funny people riffing, keep the best parts, and presto, you have a movie. Don't get me wrong, his movies are the funniest films made today BUT no one ever created a Wikipedia page to explain the ending of an Apatow movie like they did for the end of Trading Places.

Side Notes: I have loved A Fish Called Wanda for a long time. My parents have always been big movie fans and took us to the movies many times in my youth. I didn't see A Fish Called Wanda with them in the theater in 1988, but I remember it was one of the most rented tapes at the Purity Supreme supermarket video section. It was around this time my mom rented a movie on VHS that looked terrible and I heard about a special scam:
  1. Rent a VHS tape
  2. Record a duplicate VHS tape of the movie (you need two VCRs for this!)
  3. Use a small screwdriver to open both VHS cartridges
  4. Take the original tape out of the original cartridge
  5. Thread the dupe tape into the original VHS box that has the original label on it
  6. Screw both cartridges shut
  7. Return original case with duped tape to store
  8. Keep original tape!
Tape manufacturers fought this by placing tamper-proof stickers across the seam in the tape, but the rental clerks would have to be vigilant checking this tape with each rental in order to catch a thief.

Watching Wanda again I realized something surprising about the ending: the heist ringleader, George Thomason is on trial when Michael Palin kills the only eyewitness, then Jamie Lee Curtis betrays him on the witness stand, then she flees the country with his barrister. We're supposed to assume Thomason is totally sunk by Curtis' betrayal, but, if the English justice system works anything like the American system, he'll get a mistrial because his barrister and key defense witness disappeared. The only eyewitness died. They could have brought his character back in the sequel??
Also, Wanda passes The Bechdel Test! At first I thought it would flunk- Cleese's wife and Jamie Lee Curtis never speak - but then I remembered Cleese's daughter: Cleese's wife and daughter Wendy and Portia have two conversations: Portia begs Wendy for a nose job because she thinks her nose is too big, and later, Wendy drags Portia to the opera but they get a flat tire. Not exactly the most liberated movie ever...