Fierce Creatures, while not a sequel, reteams the players from 1988’s uproarious cross-cultural caper farce A Fish Called Wanda — John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. Together or separately, these four have provided so much pleasure, in such a variety of settings (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, True Lies, etc.), that you go into their new movie hoping for something ticklish and inspired. But Fierce Creatures is mostly a mess: toothless when it should be nasty, not so much madcap as merely frantic. Cleese plays the head of an English zoo that’s on the verge of being downsized out of existence by its owner, an Aussie mogul in the Rupert Murdoch vein. Kline, in a dual role, plays both the mogul and his hormonally overcharged American doofus son, who is sent to London along with an alluring new executive (Curtis) to oversee the zoo’s attempts to become profitable.
These include eliminating all the animals that aren’t ”fierce,” pretending that some of them are the pets of famous stars (yes, see Bruce Springsteen’s tortoise!), and plastering the zoo with garish corporate logos. None of these gags are really all that funny, perhaps because they aren’t allowed to come to the center of the movie. They’re background jokes. The trouble is, the foreground is just as scattershot. Cleese, with his peerless gift for pushing civility into apoplexy, ought to be perfect as the beleaguered head of a zoo spinning out of control, but he’s a passive ringmaster. The running gag that plays off his wimpiness — Kline and Curtis keep catching him in situations that make him look like a wildly successful stud — would have worked better if you didn’t see the setups coming a mile away.
The halfhearted jokiness of Fierce Creatures may be the result of its having two directors (Robert Young and Fred Schepisi), and it may spring from the fact that Cleese no longer has the astonishing physical spryness that powered some of his greatest routines. Kline, who won an Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda, is the only one here who revives the earlier film’s fizzy high, notably in a bit near the end where the screwup son dons a mustache and does a scrambling impersonation of his autocrat father. It’s the one moment when Fierce Creatures turns your head around with laughter.