A TALE OF MURDER, LUST, GREED, REVENGE, AND SEAFOOD.
In the mid-eighties, John Cleese must have been pretty pleased with himself. He was still at the top of his game, a comedy superstar, and his latest film Clockwise (1986) showed him in good shape. That movie paired his uptight headmaster with a charming, young girl who was a student of his. There was a certain dynamic between them. When writing the romance for his next film A Fish Called Wanda (1988), it looked like Cleese was inspired by that kind of relationship, with an age difference. However, Wanda came to outshine Clockwise on every level.
Cleese stars as an uptight London barrister whose latest client is George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), guilty of robbing a bank. There were accomplices, but George doesn’t trust them and has hidden the loot. Not even Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his girlfriend, knows where the money is… and that’s good for George because Wanda intends to stiff him with a little help from Otto (Kevin Kline), her other lover, who’s pretending to be her brother. Wanda realizes that one key to finding out where the money is could be the barrister. But as she tries to seduce him, Otto’s jealousy threatens to ruin the whole thing.
Cleese has rounded up an absolutely amazing cast. He is himself likeable as the bored attorney whose marriage is quite dead. The passion burning inside of him is released when he meets Wanda and it’s easy to see why; Curtis is sexy and funny and she makes her character anything but a cliché. Michael Palin is also great fun to see as the stuttering animal lover whose frequent attempts at bumping off a witness to the robbery only result in her dogs being killed.
But the true star of this film is Kline who never makes a false move as the psychopathic criminal who pretends to understand Nietzsche and is particularly sensitive about being called stupid. There is such energy in his performance; he is outrageously offensive and annoying… but also simply a laugh riot.
Brimming with memorable laugh-out-loud lines
Cleese worked with the actors and their performances a lot and Charles Crichton, a veteran of several classic Ealing comedies, took care of the technical aspects of directing. That was their agreement and it worked out fine. They have kept everything going very smoothly – at its best, this film is a reminder of how fresh and inventive the Ealing films used to be. The dialogue is brimming with memorable laugh-out-loud lines and the screenplay is clever, combining a traditional heist story and its enjoyable twists and turns with a love story you’re never quite sure of where it’s heading.
Also, John Du Prez’s music reinforces feelings of tension and romance. Originally, the filmmakers fancied a darker comedy, but test audiences made them realize that it needed more heart. That sounds like a cop-out, but the added warmth effectively dampens Cleese’s somewhat familiar cruel streak.
Not that the film is bereft of its edge. Its most famous sequence is the one where Otto is torturing Ken (Palin) by stuffing French fries up his nostrils and eating his pet fish. That scene pretty much says it all – this is a slightly disturbing, quite odd but hilarious film, essentially mirroring everything that is great about the career of John Cleese. You’ve got some absurdity à la Monty Python and some slapstick and embarrassing situations à la Fawlty Towers. This is the king of comedy in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen, and there is no reason to be offended.
A Fish Called Wanda 1988-U.S. 108 min. Color. Produced by Michael Shamberg. Directed by Charles Crichton. Screenplay: John Cleese. Music: John Du Prez. Cast: John Cleese (Archie Leach), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda Gershwitz), Kevin Kline (Otto), Michael Palin, Maria Aitken, Tom Georgeson… Stephen Fry.
Trivia: The cast reunited for Fierce Creatures (1997).
Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Kline). BAFTA: Best Actor (Cleese), Supporting Actor (Palin).
Quote: “Aristotle was not Belgian, the principle of Buddhism is not ‘every man for himself’ and the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.” (Curtis telling Kline he’s stupid)
Last word: “I wanted to film ‘A Fish called Wanda’ in London, and make it look lovely, what Woody Allen and Gordon Willis did for New York in ‘Manhattan’. […] “I wanted to film a scene where someone with a stutter was trying to get out something very important, and the listener had barely contained patience. [Charles Crichton] had wanted to film someone being steamrollered before he retired. We managed to work out both scenes in ‘Fish Called Wanda’ and it made him very happy.” (Cleese, Monsters & Critics)