There’s nothing more disappointing than revisiting a film that was considered great at its release, only to discover that it’s horribly dated. Many of the films that I loved as a teenager, particularly ones made in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t hold up some twenty or thirty years later. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was one these films I loved, and I was afraid it would suffer the same fate as so many of those other films from that period. I’m happy to report that the film not only holds up, but is still one of the funniest, quirkiest comedies ever made.
Four crooks: Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), her lover Otto West (Kevin Kline), her other lover George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and the stuttering animal lover Ken Pile (Michael Palin), team up to pull off an impressive diamond heist. Successfully completing their mission, the double-crossing begins immediately with George moving the diamonds to a location known only to him and his faithful right hand man, Ken. Masquerading as siblings around George and Ken, Wanda and Otto seek revenge by anonymously reporting George to the authorities. Further complicating matters is Wanda’s plan to use Otto as long as she can to get the diamonds, then turn on him and take the loot for herself. George hires barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) to represent him. Using her skills as a clever seductress, Wanda pretends to be an American law student studying the British legal system to get close to Archie in hopes of finding out where George hid the diamonds. Wanda hilariously juggles her relationships with Otto, Archie and George, and even finds time to use her seductive skills on Ken, momentarily curing him of his stutter.
It’s difficult to single out what makes A Fish Called Wanda one of the great modern comedies. With its impressive principle cast including Monty Python alumni John Cleese and Michael Palin, along with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda combines the zaniness found in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and sex comedies of the 1960s, with a little irreverent Monty Python-style parody thrown in for good measure. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, diving head first into some of the most ridiculous gags. Take the animal-loving, card carrying PETA member Ken, for instance. Ken is tasked with the assassination of a little old lady, the prosecution’s lone witness. He decides to kill her during one of her daily walks with her three little dogs. Rather than just shooting her, Ken devises a series of complicated schemes that would make even the most sinister Bond villain envious. Of course, each time he fails miserably, instead taking out the old lady’s dogs one by one. A grim outcome, and in most situations, wouldn’t be funny. But Ken’s reaction, and his subsequent injuries each time one of the dogs is killed, is so darkly hysterical. And if that weren’t enough, Palin’s Ken lurks behind the trees in a cemetery, bandaged up and sobbing, as each dog receives a proper religious burial. The brilliance of this gag is in Palin playing it straight, with his character genuinely devastated over accidentally killing the dogs, but unflinching over the attempts to kill an innocent old lady.
Then there’s Cleese’s Archie Leach, a man who is in a boring, loveless marriage with his rich wife. It takes only a couple meetings with Wanda for him to fall in love and start an affair. Archie’s infatuation causes him to act erratic and foolish, like staging a break-in at his home to retrieve Wanda’s necklace that his wife mistakenly thought was a gift for her. Or during one of his trysts with Wanda, in the home of one of his colleagues, Archie strips while doing a ridiculous balletic dance. (Cleese has incredible legs. Who knew?) While dancing, Archie recites poems in Italian, Russian and German as Wanda, who has some sort of hilariously bizarre foreign language fetish, writhes around on the floor. Archie is totally uninhibited when he’s around Wanda, allowing Cleese to do some of the quirky physical comedy and clever quips that he perfected during his years with Monty Python and his television show Fawlty Towers (1975-1979).
But it’s Kevin Kline’s Otto, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, that takes A Fish Called Wanda from a standard comedy to one of the funniest of all time. Otto is an unhinged, jealous, oversexed, Nietzsche-reading, Anglophobic maniac who is always packing heat and threatening those who call him “stupid.” He never misses an opportunity to fire a gun, insult an Englishman, or seduce Wanda with his broken Italian. Kline steals every single scene he’s in, from interrupting romantic moments between Archie and Wanda to his sadistic interrogation of Ken.
In addition to the humorous dialogue and sight gags, A Fish Called Wanda is filled with clever and subtle jokes. John Cleese and director Charles Crichton (on what would be his final film) co-wrote the screenplay, and it’s clear they had fun developing the character’s names. For example, Cleese’s character Archie Leach is named after Cary Grant’s birth name. Also, actor Tom Georgeson’s character George Thomason, never fails to get a few laughs.
While it spins out of control in the final minutes (a signature of the classic screwball comedy), the film successfully manages to combine slapstick elements, subtle jokes, romance and dark comedy. Not only does A Fish Called Wanda stand the test of time, but it set the bar for the modern comedy.
This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on April 22, 2017 and can be found archived here.
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