God may love all creatures great and small but he especially likes them tall -- and balding, and filled with the rigid, rumpled, fearful look of an ex-police inspector in over his head. And with mustaches. And with the name John Cleese.
Carry on, Cleese!
Cleese is back, eight years after "A Fish Called Wanda" with "Fierce Creatures," boasting the same cast (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and a double dosage of Kevin Kline) arrayed in roughly the same personality range as before, but utterly unconnected to the earlier shenanigans and reimagined in a completely foolish plot. It doesn't approach the comic perfection of "A Fish Called Wanda," but it's desperately, pathologically funny as it bumbles and veers chaotically across the landscape.
This time through, the model is subtly different. Or put it this way: The first film was so original in the cruelty and unexpectedness of its humor, it somehow had no model. This film appears to be based on the vulgar "Carry On!" comedies, a low-end Brit import usually starring Terry-Thomas and the cleavages of the latest Page 3 girls from the London Sun, back in the late '50s and early '60s. The movies were set in an odd world: ugly, dwarfish, snaggle-toothed tribal mutant men and Valkyrie women in blouses three sizes too small and under such strain that somehow they kept popping open. Ooops. Oh, excuse me, Miss Darling, didn't mean to bump you! Smarmy, smutty, crazed, it wasn't exactly the sort of thing that inspired the young Ken Branagh, but lord, they were funny!
The setting in the new film is a British zoo recently acquired by maniacal Australian billionaire Rod McCain -- Kline in a brutally convincing Rupert Murdoch impersonation -- who demands a 20 percent profit on all his subsidiaries or he'll break them up and sell them for a profit to the Japanese. Thus, new executive Rollo Lee (Cleese) is put in a quandary: The only way to make the zoo that profitable is to turn it into a kind of theme park of the one universal value of entertainment -- violence. The new mantra becomes: Fierce animals yes, Nice animals no.
Thus one comic turn tracks as all the keepers try and convince this idiot that their favorite lemurs and koalas are savage beasts, ready to rip flesh from bones in a split-second. The movie gets a lot of humor out of that dumb benign gaze that is so typical of the animal world, that placid, big, wet-eyed stare indicating no memory, no anticipation, no mental activity, merely existence.
But soon a new set of antagonists arrives and a new set of confusions. This is Kline as Vince McCain, his own Rupert Murdoch impersonation's feckless, crooked son; and Curtis as Willa Weston, another Murdoch executive, both of whom have plans for the zoo. Another main source of humor: Kline's utter American crassness as applied to something so beloved of the fuzzy-wuzzy greenie set, wild animals. He begins a number of crude, laughingly distasteful hustles, like a Bruce Springsteen-sponsored tortoise (Bruce's lawyers are perturbed), ultimately turning the zoo into an inane corporate fantasyland with Fuji elephants and a lion fronting for Absolut vodka.
For some reason, Cleese gets the best work out of Kline on the planet. Kline is pure magic in his two roles, the blunt, crushing, vicious father and the vapid, greedy, pathetically grasping son. He's everywhere, he's everywhere! That is, except where he wants to be, which is in bed with Curtis, who's too busy leaning over every time the camera is turned on to notice him.
I love the expertise with which Cleese and directors Fred Schepesi and Robert Young set up a gag early and thread it through the narrative, working variations in a dozen ways and then finally making it pay off big at the end. The best of these concerns Curtis' mistaken impression that Cleese is some kind of big stud boy, taking women to bed three and four at a time, when of course he's as chaste as a brick. A secret pleasure is watching the elements of this gag collect in a given situation and seem to combine and recombine before they finally come into the right alignment, always unexpected, always funny.
I suppose "Fierce Creatures" fritters in the end, as it seeks a coherent conclusion to its madness. Such an ending is impossible; it's like finding a coherent ending to an explosion. The last gag, built around a spur-of-the-moment impression of a dead man, is probably the weakest in the movie. But getting there's a great deal of fun, the best laugh to come this way in many a moon. Albert Brooks, eat your heart out!
Starring John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin
Directed by Robert Young and Fred Schepesi
Released by Universal
Sun score *** 1/2
Pub Date: 1/24/97