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A Fish Called Wanda: Collector's Edition

After a strong early career in the 1940s and '50s — he helmed two of England's landmark Ealing Comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt — by the '60s and '70s, Charles Crichton was making a living primarily as a TV director. Then, in 1977, Monty Python alum John Cleese tapped Crichton to work on a series of management training videos that Cleese was producing. Flash-forward to almost 10 years later, when Cleese was looking for someone to direct a script he'd written about a group of double-crossing jewel thieves — who could be better-suited, the erstwhile Silly Walker thought to himself, than the man who'd basically helped establish the wry, twisty-comedy genre in the first place? And thus were moviegoers lucky enough to get A Fish Called Wanda (1988), a modern classic that more than does justice to its Ealing origins.

Wanda begins with a daring daylight robbery in London. Diamonds are stolen, getaways are made, loot is stashed, and — almost immediately — the back-stabbing begins. Having decided to snatch the diamonds for themselves, pretty, devious Wanda (a sparkling Jamie Lee Curtis) and her psychopath-philosopher lover, Otto (Kevin Kline, who won an Oscar for the role), blithely turn ringleader Georges Thomason (Tom Georgeson) over to the police… only to discover that the loot has been moved. Wanda proceeds to warm up to Georges' stuffy, married barrister, Archie Leach (Cleese), hoping that he'll have an inside angle she can use to her advantage, while Otto preys on Georges' devoted, stutter-afflicted sidekick, Ken (Michael Palin). Meanwhile, various languages are spoken in the name of seduction, a few small dogs are accidentally killed, and a tankful of fish gets eaten.

*          *          *

Despite the fact that most of the main characters are so selfish and dysfunctional that they make the cast of "Seinfeld" look like Boy (and Girl) Scouts, A Fish Called Wanda manages to turn its merry miscreants into sympathetic characters — which, in turn, is what makes the film succeed. That's due both to Cleese's razor-sharp script (which earned him and Crichton an Oscar nomination) and to the excellent cast. Curtis (whose role was probably the most challenging, since she needed to stay likable despite cheerfully betraying everyone else) has never been better, and Kline absolutely deserved the Academy Award for his work as Otto. Violent, mercurial, over-confident, and virtually remorseless, Kline is also hysterically funny, even when he's torturing poor Ken by slurping down his aquatic friends ("Don't eat the green ones — they're not ripe yet"). Palin and Cleese turn in the kind of spot-on performances we should expect from former Pythons; Ken's increasingly desperate quest to off the robbery's one witness is an inspired subplot, and Cleese has never played it straight so successfully. When all is said and done, A Fish Called Wanda is one of those movies you just can't imagine with anyone else in the lead roles — even the titular fish herself.

And, according to the trivia track on MGM/Fox's much-delayed two-disc "Collector's Edition" DVD, that could have happened: The finned Wanda was originally played by a yellow angel fish. That's just one of many good behind-the-scenes tidbits for fans on this long-awaited, features-heavy set (the original 1999 DVD release was a bare-bones affair). The first disc offers the film in a clear anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (the original mono track also is available). Extras on this platter include a commentary track by Cleese and a trivia track. Pop in the second disc for the bulk of the goodies: The new, 30-minute "Something Fishy" retrospective documentary; 26 deleted and alternate scenes introduced by Cleese; three vintage featurettes (one is a Wanda-centric episode of a British show called "On Location," and the other two are behind-the-scenes affairs featuring interviews with Cleese, who keeps saying he's looking forward to taking a break from showbiz… but evidently never really followed through on those plans); an extensive stills gallery, the theatrical trailer, other MGM/Fox previews, and a very funny five-minute "Message from John Cleese" that apparently served as a promo for the movie on British TV. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
—Betsy Bozdech

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