Friday, September 14, 2012

The Misadventures of Werth & Wise

Wise: Greetings, Werth!

Werth: Ssh, Wise. Mama's got a hangover.

Wise: I take it you're still recovering from our night out this past Saturday.

Werth: Who knew dinner and a show would wind up with us closing down a hole-in-the-wall organic bar after multiple rounds of free-range vodka with fresh ginger-infused ginger ale served by a Roman hottie?

Wise: Not to mention finding a drunk woman with a birkin bag taking a catnap in the loo.

Werth: It just goes to show the fun you can have when a series of misadventures sends your plans off-track.

Wise: Everything jumps the rails in A Fish Called Wanda (1988).  Written by and staring Monty Python alum John Cleese, this farce follows the misadventures of a ragtag band of jewel thieves as they plot, doublecross, but mostly muddle through a jewel heist that goes every which way except according to plan.  

Werth: Sounds like the plot to The Great Muppet Caper.
Wise: Not exactly. Although Cleese has a cameo in Jim Henson's film, he plays the lead in his own: Archie Leach, a well-respected barrister with a shrewish wife who is almost too strait-laced to fall for the machinations of Jamie Lee Curtis's sexpot criminal Wanda Gershwitz.  

Werth: I used to think of Jamie Lee Curtis as sexy until she started shilling for digestive health

Wise: While pretending to be in love with English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), Wanda is actually plotting with her lover Otto (Kevin Kline), a hair-trigger weapons expert who fancies himself an intellectual, but whose vanity-induced rages foil nearly every scheme.  After the gang pulls off the heist, Wanda and Otto drop a dime on George landing him in prison, only to find that George has already removed the jewels to another location.  Wanda stumbles into George's barrister (Cleese) and decides that the best way to secure the loot is to seduce him
Meanwhile, George has convinced the fourth member of the gang—the stuttering, animal-loving Ken (Michael Palin)—to rub out the sole witness to the crime, the doddering Mrs. Coady (Benny Hill Show alumna Patricia Hayes), but to make sure the crime looks like an accident.  

Werth: Cue up "Yakety Sax." 

Wise: Of course, nothing goes according to plan: Ken keeps botching the job, mistakenly eliminating the old lady's yapping Yorkshire terriers one by one instead of the old gal herself in an escalating series of hilarious gaffes;
Otto's jealous outbursts and sheer stupidity nearly give the whole game away multiple times; and Archie and Wanda fall in love which is the one complication amid the endless blunders that turns out right.  

Werth: Jewel thieves should learn to keep their personal lives out of the workplace. 
Wise: The love story anchors the mayhem that surrounds it, allowing Kline and Palin to ascend to ever more baroque heights of madness.  Palin is hilarious, working mostly alone and in pantomime; he's like a throwback to Harold Lloyd, only instead of rescuing the girl, he flubs almost every attempt to kill her. 
Kline, however, gets to be a bit more operatic, trying on a series of accents and pratfalls, and eventually securing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his wrongheaded efforts.  He and the rest of the cast prove that no matter how brilliant the scheme, a pack of idiots can always make things turn out worse.

Werth: Idiot criminals also stumble through a string of misadventures in the Coen Brothers' Depression-era comedy O Brother Where Are Thou? (2000). Ulysses Everett McGill (the dapper George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escape a chain gang deep in the heart of Mississippi and make their way through the backroads of the Deep South to retrieve a stash of money from an armored car robbery before a TVA project floods the entire valley. But nothing goes according to Ulysses' semi-formed plans.
Pursued by a menacing lawman (Daniel von Bargen), the mismatched trio stumbles into and out of money as they encounter a cock-eyed radio station owner, George (don't call him Babyface) Nelson, a one-eyed bible salesman (John Goodman), three scantily clad sirens washing their undies in a river, and Ulysses' sparky ex-wife (Holly Hunter) who is about to re-marry.

Wise: Sounds epic.

Werth: It should. The Coen Brothers based the story on Homer's The Odyssey. Even though they claim never to have actually read the poem, only absorbed it through cultural osmosis, the references are cunning and playful... for those who actually know ancient Greek literature well enough to recognize them.

Wise: Mostly I'm just able to recognize Harry Hamlin

Werth: But any dustiness that might cling to Homer is blown away by the Coens' sense of dark comedy and expert cinematic design.

The Coens often do amazing work when they create environments that infuse every facet of the film with character: the pre-war skyscrapers of New York City in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the snowy wasteland of North Dakota in Fargo (1996), the seedy, gaudy world of bowling alleys in The Big Lebowski (1998).
Here, the dusty, ravaged world of the Deep South in the 1930's is mined for all its ugliness and character, creating a brown and yellow-paletted world of strange beauty populated by drawl-ey no-goods, bible-beaters, blustering politicians, and lots of good, "ole-timey" folk music.
The soundtrack of authentic music from the era became an unexpected hit and the movie itself was nominated for two Academy Awards. So if you're interested in having a wild night out in the comfort of your living room, O Brother hits all the right notes.

Wise: Since both our misadventure movies involve criminals, should our next night out include a little larceny?

Werth: I'll swipe some flatware if you can palm a salt shaker.

Wise: Tune in to see what we get away with in next week's Film Gab!

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