Directed by Robert M. Young and Fred Schepisi
A Universal Pictures Release
If you were one of those tenderhearted souls who was mortally offended by parts of John Cleese’s A Fish Called Wanda (1988), in which small poodles were squashed and tropical fish gobbled down by an exuberant psychopath (Kevin Kline), you’ll be relieved to know that the animals in the new comedy, co-written by Cleese, Fierce Creatures, are not only rescued from slaughter; they’re relentlessly cuddled–and the characters who come to care for them are thereby ennobled. Is this, for Cleese, a form of penance? The film is set in an endangered English zoo, which has been newly acquired by a belching, farting, Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul (Kline), whose mission in life is to halve quality and double profits. To this end, he appoints a new director, Rollo Lee (Cleese), a stern former policeman. Lee’s job is to jettison those creatures who are harmless and retain only those who are fierce, on the premise that audiences want action, blood and guts, and savagery. Cleese, apparently, has come to feel the reverse. For this movie, he has reunited his Wanda family–Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin, a few others–and contrived what amounts to a pantheistic love-in: A Fish Called Wanda for vegetarians.
Fierce Creatures has long been rumored to be a disaster. It tested poorly with audiences and then sat unreleased for a year, until the cast could reassemble and shoot a new ending. (There are two credited directors, the English Robert M. Young, who made the first version, and the Australian Fred Schepisi, who revised it.) At the screening I attended, a dozen or so people got up and bolted, not enchanted. But the movie isn’t so awful–it’s actually rather pleasant. It has a few scenes of blissful silliness; lots of odd, unfamiliar animals (lemurs, anteaters, meerkats); and a plucky menagerie of actors. It’s pokey and ramshackle, but that’s not always bad; watching it is like sitting in a car in which the engine has fallen out and which is now being pulled by an old and easily distracted mule. It’s apt to get tedious quickly, though, and it never builds any momentum. The problem, I suspect, is that its heart bogs it down.
If anyone has proven that the most sublime farce is fueled by heartlessness, it’s Cleese. His Basil Fawlty, anti-hero of the incomparable BBC series Fawlty Towers (a mere 12 episodes of which were taped in the mid-1970s), remains one of the great comic creations of the 20th century: a hotel proprietor alternately servile and supercilious, a man whose character traits (miserliness, prudery, a terror of embarrassment) ensured that he’d box himself into ever tighter corners. Each episode was engineered with fiendish mathematical wizardry to bring Cleese to an operatic pitch of hysteria. Many of us happily weathered the sometimes infantile gags: anything to hear that voice fly up into an injured falsetto when challenged on some ludicrous fabrication (“Oh, I see.”); or to watch, agog, as that nearly 6-foot-5-inch frame attempts to fold itself into a small standing closet or to sidle inconspicuously across a room (long legs first, torso sloping back, each half of the body seeming in a different hemisphere).
All right: Cleese has done that; it’s time to move on. Sustaining a Fawlty Towers-like pitch for the length of an entire film would be next to impossible anyway. But in the intervening decades, Cleese has come to value mental health above all else. He has co-written books with his therapist, Robin Skynner, and has evidently concluded that it’s just as important to make people feel good as it is to make them laugh. I submit that few things in this world have made me feel as good and laugh as hard as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fawlty Towers, but there is no denying a certain coldness in both enterprises. Traditional farce (the genre to which Fawlty Towers belongs) takes as its icy premise the idea that human beings, for all their pretensions, are as low as animals. The warmed-up Cleese is sure that animals have much to teach us, and that we all have the capacity to learn from them.
I, for one, had a better time watching poodles get flattened by steamrollers. Which is not to say that Cleese doesn’t flirt with his old, jolly nastiness, especially when Rollo arrives at the zoo. (“Have you a background in animals?” “Well, I’ve eaten a few.”) The keepers, among them Palin as Adrian “ugsy” Malone, a dotty and garrulous (but, alas, not very funny) spider herder, attempt to convince him that certain benign-looking beasties could, in reality, be lethal. And if Cleese didn’t soften up so quickly–if we didn’t see him, within minutes, in bed with all the animals he has pretended to shoot and that he now must keep hidden from his employees, the picture might have had more in the way of dramatic tension. Instead, representatives of the evil corporation arrive in the form of Willa Weston (Curtis), an ambitious but softhearted executive who, we know, will come around to the zoo keepers’ point of view, and the media mogul’s son, Vince (Kline again), who is such a fatuous crybaby that he poses no serious obstacles. And so the movie dawdles.
It’s fun just to look at the animals, though, and at Curtis, who smiles her friendly, horsy smile and shows off those coltish gams and oddly balloonlike breasts. (As a character points out in the self-conscious, hack-’em-up Scream, it wasn’t until Curtis moved from exploitation movies to mainstream comedies that she started spilling out of her clothes.) Among the trainers, Cleese’s blond daughter, Cynthia, and Carey Lowell provide some happy, sprightly bits, and one or two scenes between Kline père and Kline fils give off sparks. (“You ruined my childhood, Dad.” “How could I? I wasn’t even there.”) Watch the way in which Cleese, still a master farceur, introduces a good gag (Willa’s misperception that Rollo is fond of sex with three or four partners at a time, and the way this turns her on) and repeats it with ever increasing returns until the final, comic A-bomb. The picture’s ending, much revised, smacks of desperation, and it does go on, but you can’t say it doesn’t round things out nicely.
So, all right, a second-rate comedy: not as funny as Wanda or Fawlty Towers, but more agreeable than most of the slapdash laugh-machines around. Why am I depressed? Because I love pure, violent farce, and I’m saddened when one of its most inspired practitioners gets a little psychotherapy and suddenly wants to be liked, to end his pictures with lots of Edenic gamboling. Analysis has muzzled Woody Allen’s and Albert Brooks’ best instincts, too. Someone should write a dissertation on the bad effects of so-called “mental health” on comedy. Our most unruly wits are in danger of being shrink-wrapped.