Fishes Out Of Water
Apart from ‘Boy Meets Girl’ there are very few plots that have names, but ‘Fish Out Of Water’ is one of them.
What is it about this time-honoured idea that plays so well again and again? Comedy is largely about discomfort and embarrassment, elements that dominate many comedies. Lately, there have been several transplanted wholesale from one nationality to the next, and many use the Fish Out Of Water format because it’s a universal concept.
Way back in ‘Blazing Saddles’ Mel Brooks famously dropped a black Sheriff into a redneck wild west town with hilarious results. And ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ uses the device beautifully with a mature gay couple having to pose as godfearing Christians in order to placate a stern moralist coming to dinner. Here, the fish out of water is the moral guardian, but for once we pray that the other side can pull off the deception.
‘Ocho Apellidos Vascos’ (‘Eight Basque Surnames’), hideously retitled ‘Spanish Affair’ in English, cost 3m and made 78m outside the US, and ‘Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis’ (Welcome to the Sticks’) cost 11m and took 250m. They both tell of southerners (Spanish and French) who are forced to go North and deal with massive cultural differences and inbuilt prejudices. Those Basque surnames are four on your mother’s side and four on your father’s, all of which you carry around with you, and in one of the comedy’s key scenes the imposter from the south finds himself having to make up the eight names in front of his girlfriend’s father. ‘Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis’ takes this a stage further by having an entire town fake stereotypical local behaviour in order to appear more typically northern to a family of southerners.
In everything from ‘The Out-Of-Towners’ to ‘Trains, Planes & Automobiles’, from ‘Withnail & I’ to ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, someone with a safe, comfortable life finds themselves beset by the chaos of a different environment.
The good natured, inclusive ‘Ahora O Nunca’ (‘Now or Never’) goes wider, with a Spanish/English bride and groom who want to marry in England where they met. In this reverse, the pleasures come from the English rubbing the Spanish up the wrong way. The same plot is used as a jump-off point in the Australian hit ‘A Few Best Men’ and its sequel ‘A Few Less Men’, but it’s much cruder.
In ‘Rein A Declarer’ a Belge-Francophobe customs officer is forced to team up with a Frenchman during the elimination of the Franco-Belge borders in the 90s; these culture clashes usually result in more respect on both sides but not much better understanding. That’s generally the theme of Fish Out Of Water movies – you learn a little from being placed outside your comfort zone.
But the political edges are not avoided in European versions. In ‘Ocho Apellidos Vascos’ the hero accidentally ends up leading a nascent terrorist arm of ETA. It should be remembered that one of ten bombs ETA planted on Madrid commuter trains in 2004 exploded killing 192 passengers. Here the various separatist movements of Spain are ridiculed. When the heroine sees a protest rally she dismisses them, saying, ‘It’s okay, they never achieve anything.’
It sometimes seems that Hollywood films will only address reality via genre parables, although it did go for maximum squirm value with ‘Get Out’, the set-up for which is so simple that it’s amazing we haven’t seen it since the Sidney Poitier films of the 1960s; Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young photographer meeting his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time. They’re wealthy middle-class WASPs, and Chris wonders if Rose should have forewarned them that he’s black. We follow a black boy into a white world, and as the prejudices come out the film lurches from comedy to horror.
As in all such stories, the climax involves everyone laying their cards on the table, often with disastrous effect. A variation on this format is ‘Perfect Strangers’, in which seven old friends get together for a dinner and place their phones in the centre of the table in a game of trust, sharing the content of every text message, email and phone call they receive – needless to say it’s a very bad idea. The film has already been made in Italy and Spain, and soon there’s to be a French version.
There are, as everyone from George Orwell to Christopher Booker agree that there are only six or seven basic plots – but as ‘The Shape of Water’ proved, you can always ring changes within those formats. In the latter, Boy Meets Girl truly became a Fish Out of Water story!