Movie Review – A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Written by John Cleese & Charles Crichton
Directed by Charles Crichton

While I haven’t ever really been over the moon for Monty Python, I have been a fan of A Fish Called Wanda since I saw it for the first time decades ago. It’s an almost pitch-perfect modern screwball comedy, mixing the romantic comedy and noir elements you might expect. The film is also an excellent satire on the differences between British and American demeanors. The characters are painted quite broadly, but it’s from that aspect that the comedy emerges. Situations are contrived and full of double crosses & betrayals, which gives the film its darkness. This is a comedy where an assassin is actively trying to kill an old lady throughout the picture, and someone gets crushed by a steamroller as a punchline.

A jewel heist is planned in the heart of London by George Thomason. With the help of his right-hand man, Ken (Michael Palin), and his moll, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), they have it all figured out. But did Wanda forget to mention her “brother” Otto (Kevin Kline), the weapons expert. He would definitely be a boon for the robbery. It all goes smoothly until an anonymous phone call sends Scotland Yard to George’s front door. He’s hidden the jewels, though, and hasn’t told anyone but Ken how to find them. Wanda and Otto are scrambling to figure out how to get the goods when she strikes upon a plan. Wanda seduces George’s barrister, Archie Leach (John Cleese). Otto is overcome with jealousy but goes along, growing his hatred for the English.

The breakout performance of A Fish Called Wanda was certainly Kevin Kline. Everyone is good in the picture, but Kline’s energy is manic to a rare degree. He also has a purpose behind his rants and sudden outbursts of violence, but they are always presented as madness. The British get under his skin with their mannerisms, but his rage is fueled even stronger when Wanda tells him she has to go to bed with Archie as part of the con. Archie believes he’s talking to a criminal law student who just happens to be friends with George, and the flirtation of an “exotic” American woman causes him to sneak around behind his wife’s back. 

Michael Palin’s performance is also fun but problematic. Ken has a very pronounced stutter, particularly when nervous or afraid. The film uses that stutter to some comedic effect, but it’s often in the context of Otto being cruel to him. In trying to break down that joke, I’m unsure if the intended comedy is Ken’s stutter or the cruelty of Otto as a form of mockery toward crass, rude Americans. 

The script was mainly written by John Cleese, who I view as having a cruel take on the world seen through the type of comedy he promotes. Cleese has been one of the many famous voices from TERF Island, aka England, to speak out against transgender and gender non-conforming people. That particular stance reveals that the comedian doesn’t see his craft as a form of critique of the powerful but rather a way to mock those he dislikes for one reason or another. Going back to Life of Brian, where he was one of the writers, Cleese seems to have no qualms about making fun of colonized people, transgender people, and now the disabled. The only redeeming part of Ken’s character arc is that he is the one who dispatches Otto in the end, which is still a very satisfying scene. 

A Fish Called Wanda is an older style of comedy, and that’s where its most significant weaknesses reveal themselves. I kept thinking about better comedies in this subgenre I’d already seen and how this movie wasn’t building on them in any way other than getting away with more overt sex jokes than older eras could have. In addition, it’s a visually dull movie, and after having just recently watched Young Frankenstein, one of the most visually gorgeous comedies ever made, I kept thinking that A Fish Called Wanda didn’t have to look this flat. The editing is a big weak point, with some cuts being a little jarring and taking the audience a bit to understand when & where we are now. 

What keeps it funny for me is, ultimately, Kline’s performance. Otto’s insecurities about being called or perceived as stupid feel very close to reality. It may be the best comedic performance of an American character that you will never see in an American-made movie. The British, while a very troubled culture for many reasons, at least have a sense of humor about themselves. That humor may be used to dull the edges of the harm they caused in the world, but they are incredibly self-deprecating. 

On the other hand, Americans present everything in stark black-and-white terms of morality, so Otto wouldn’t have a place in contemporary American comedy. What’s ironic for an old bigot like Cleese is that this film would probably be labeled “woke” if it came out today because it portrays the female lead as more intelligent than almost all the men in the movie and the lone American as a buffoon. Yet another instance that shows us how that hollow pejorative is as meaningless as labeling everything you don’t like as “socialist” or “communist.”


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