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Intent on re-creating the inexplicable charm of A Fish Called Wanda, the cast—John Cleese, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline—herein reunite for what they are archly calling “an equal, not a sequel.” The allure of Wanda, like that of the shallow-chinned, tree-trunk-necked, bird-legged female that passes for a sexpot in these two films, is obscure to me; it depended on a sour, violent, very ’80s sort of irreverence—offing dogs and torturing people with takeout fries.

Happily, then, it seems that some Fierce Creatures are more equal than others. Depending as this one does on a series of well-executed vaudeville routines and running misunderstandings about characters’ and animals’ sex lives (and the likelihood of characters’ sex lives with animals), Fierce Creatures is not going to inspire Feydeau to clap skeletal palm to bony forehead, but neither does it shame his tradition.

Kline plays Vince McCain, callow playboy son of sporty Australian media mogul Rod McCain, a combination Rupert Murdoch-Ted Turner, also played by Kline. Rod doesn’t care what gets torn down and erected in its place, as long as it will turn a profit, and Vince doesn’t care either, as long as he’ll inherit the profits. Nothing really separates heartless, money-grubbing father from spitting-image son, except for the desire and ability to work for the money they both crave; layabout Vince knows nothing of work. Needless to say, they despise each other. To get Vince out of his sight, Rod sends him to oversee a sweet, ailing English zoo, and sends along a new hiree, an epicene automaton in hooker’s clothing named Willa Weston (Curtis). Actually, Curtis’ acting is for once bearable and, here and there, even quite good, although her idea of sexy still begins and ends with letting her tits hang out.

Under orders from McCain Sr., new zoo director Rollo Lee (Cleese) must devise ways of showing a 20-percent profit from the business, so he institutes a “fierce creatures” policy—only violent, vicious, man-eating, and otherwise dangerous animals allowed, the better to draw the bloody-minded masses. An endearing cadre of soft-hearted zookeepers pleads otherwise, each making the case for the potential ferociousness of his or her own cuddly charge, but the meerkat, the ring-tailed lemur, and the birdies are marked for early extinction.

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Each of the keepers is no more than a type, but pitiful and charming for all that—they’re gentle losers with a specialty that will never give them a cushier life than the one they share at Marwood Zoo. As for Palin’s role in this effort, as a keeper attached, not without reason, to a fuzzy tarantula, it is sadly nugatory. His character is one of those fact-stuffed bores who natter on endlessly with statistics no one wants to hear. This couldn’t have been funny in the heyday of the hippodrome; it’s death onscreen today.

Rollo, of course, is privately as marshmallowy as the keepers themselves when faced with a cage full of doomed furries, but he won’t be manipulated by his employees, so he puts up five little fake graves and then stashes the pardoned Death Row Five in his own room, a situation that makes for much comic misinterpretation, as Willa and Vince overhear exhortations such as “Suzy, come on, girl, get off the bed. Not now, Cindy, please. Tee-hee.”

This running gag isn’t entirely believable, but the music hall stage is an artificial environment, and that is where Fierce Creatures takes place, animals and all. The sexual farce is played at an extremely shrill pitch—Willa gets attention from Rollo by grinding her rear in his crotch—but also at a high level—she preserves enough dignity not to sleep with Vince until she sees some dividends from their partnership. The old lust-fogged stutter scene between Cleese and Curtis is very well done; in the middle of it, Cleese attempts to apologize for his “Freudian slit, slut, slip.”

Pretty soon, the zookeepers are wearing silly costumes and the zoo is festooned with corporate banners, logos, and tie-ins, not all of which the sponsors have been made aware of. This sendup of corporate and event sponsorship is the only true irreverence in the film; it is not only carried to an obscene and hilarious extreme, but it comments implicitly on product placement in movies, which even quality work like Jerry Maguire isn’t above.

By the time the elder McCain comes visiting, with plans to shut the place down and erect something monstrous and profitable—a golf course—the stage is set for zaniness that never quite explodes. The big farcical showpiece ending, while giving Kline an opportunity to play the son pretending to be the father he also played, hangs on a Wanda-style note of aberrant ugliness, and everyone runs around saving the zoo but almost nothing of their dignity.

Creatures’ infamous troubles—much cutting, pasting, and plot-juggling after test screenings produced widespread loathing among audiences, an entirely reshot ending—haven’t hampered it much, although the film Robert Young began shooting isn’t quite the one Fred Schepisi finished (they share directorial credit). For all its touching flaws, it isn’t the kind of liberating, insane mess that even the most troubled production can sometimes be. The laughs, big as they are, are too calculated, and no one in this thing ever really lets loose.

Fierce Creatures has a cramped, blueprinty feel, like a carefully structured Hollywood production (although it apes and sometimes equals the inspired lunacy of England’s great Ealing studio comedies) that is as shoddily reasoned as the dumbest thriller—don’t concentrate on the plot too long, you’ll sprain something—and deliberately looks no further than the lowest common denominator for its source of laughs. Still, splashing about in the muck can be a lot of fun, and watching others do it—when they do it right—can be a lot of funny.CP