A Fish Called Wanda

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: When scheming Americans Wanda and her “brother” Otto stitch up her lover George following a bank raid, they reckon without George moving the diamonds to a safe place as insurance. To find where they are, Wanda sets about seducing George’s bored barrister Archie Leach; though he’s instantly smitten, Otto’s jealous interference threatens to ruin Wanda’s plans at every step.

Archie Leach (John Cleese) may be a successful barrister, but his wife and daughter couldn’t care less; so it’s little wonder that his head is turned by forward American Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) when she approaches Archie in his role as counsel for her shifty ‘friend’ George Thomason (Tom Georgeson!). Wanda’s lively passion is the polar opposite of disinterested wife Wendy (Maria Aitken) and spoilt daughter Portia (Cleese’s daughter Cynthia Caylor), but Archie doesn’t know the half of it: her real passion lies in discovering the whereabouts of a safety deposit box containing $20 million dollars-worth of diamonds, stolen in a heist involving her lover Otto (Kevin Kline), who’s masquerading as her brother and is too stup – sorry, philosophical – to see that she’s playing him for a fool too. Though Archie loses Wanda’s locket containing the key to the box as well as his heart, the real key to the case lies with Michael Palin’s Ken, a stammering animal-lover who goes to terrible lengths to get George off the hook.

I love A Fish Called Wanda. I don’t want to get carried away because it’s the very next film I watched (for the umpteenth time) after seeing the execrable Hall Pass, but it’s full of everything that film lacks; a narrative, jokes, and most importantly characters portrayed by talented comic actors. To take each of these in turn, the narrative is an update of the sort of thing director and Ealing veteran Charles Crichton cut his teeth on, a farce-fuelled crime caper enlivened by East-End types rubbing shoulders with unstable Yanks. The jokes are every bit as sharp as you might hope for from ex-Python Cleese, the sarcastic energy that made Fawlty Towers such a joy given the budget and (transatlantic) sparkle that was sadly lacking from his previous cinematic outing Clockwise. And behind every gag, there’s a masterful exploitation of the age-old tension between spineless, pompous Brits and vulgar, idiotic Americans which cleverly allows both sides to feel the other is the one being mocked.

Finally, you have the vibrant characters: George, shifty and violent; Wanda, the cunning vixen with a weakness for foreign tongues; Ken, almost completely deranged by his efforts to bump off Patricia Hayes’ eye-witness rather than her blameless Yorkies, yet somehow sympathetic; and Archie, the archetypally repressed Englishman whose humdrum life is transformed into a chaotic whirlwind by Wanda’s influence. These would all contribute to a sparky, if unexceptional comedy.

Kline’s Otto lifts A Fish Called Wanda into another category altogether, with a performance of such inspired idiocy that everything he does turns into gold, whether it’s double-kicking a car in frustration, shouting “asshole!” at innocent drivers, or torturing Ken by stuffing chips up his nose and devouring his fish. Kline plays beautifully off all his co-stars and absolutely walks off with the picture, being both a crazy and a viable character – so how could he possibly be killed off at the end? Very few comedy performances are rewarded with an Oscar, and while Academy Awards are hardly guarantees of quality, in this instance his win was richly deserved.

If there is a problem with the movie – and there is – it lies with Wanda (the woman, not the fish). In the olden days, Curtis’ role as the promiscuous, double-crossing gangster’s moll would have been played with a nudge and a wink; in more permissive times, she actually cosies up (to one extent or another) with four different men. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but the movie’s conceit that she’s only out for herself – until she’s touched, of all things, by Archie’s poverty – doesn’t ring true. Which is to take nothing away from Curtis, who is brilliant at everything she’s asked to do; it’s just that a lot of what she’s asked to do is wearing low-cut dresses and writhing around due to an improbable fetish for languages.

Plus, there’s a carbon copy of the unforgivably gratuitous (if not at all unpleasant) Alice Eve shot that recently got people hot under the collar in Star Trek Into Darkness. Still, Maria Aitken provides lovely balance as Wendy – there’s a wonderful sequence of cuts between her and Archie’s night-time habits and Otto and Wanda’s more enthusiastic, er, rutting.

Cleese’s character in A Fish Called Wanda is called Archie Leach in tribute (as I’m sure you know) to Cary Grant. He should be so lucky*; but it’s to Cleese’s credit as writer (with Crichton) that he doesn’t even have to be a brilliantly convincing leading man, or Curtis a sympathetic leading lady, for the film to be a roaring success. Nonetheless, it’s thanks to the performances of Palin and Kline that the film shines, and – I’m pleased to say – every bit as brightly now as it did a quarter of a century ago.

NOTES: I should say that for all my praise of Kline, perhaps top of my many favourite moments from the film is the little clenched fist of celebration Archie gives, mid-burglary, when he smashes one of Wendy’s ghastly ornaments.

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