A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Release Date: August 5th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Charles Crichton Actors: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Maria Aitken, Tom Georgeson, Patricia Hayes, Cynthia Caylor, Geoffrey Palmer

 


 

E

nglish gangster Georges (Tom Georgeson) is planning a $20 million diamond heist and is in need of a weapons man. So his lover Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) brings the insensitive, peculiarly preoccupied Otto (Kevin Kline) – posing as her brother – to assist with the theft. The fourth man, dealing with planning and vehicle acquirement, is heavy stutterer Ken (Michael Palin). When Wanda and Otto plot to double cross Georges, he beats them to the punch by relocating the stolen jewels.

But Georges is arrested and Wanda and Otto are stuck wondering where the loot has been stashed. Her plan then becomes to seduce the barrister in charge of defending Georges, hoping that he will divulge the hiding place to his lawyer. Attorney Archie Leach (John Cleese) is the perfect target, a mid-life-crises-filled man who has grown tired of his disinterested wife Wendy (Maria Aitken) and his spoiled daughter Portia (Cynthia Caylor). Wanda poses as a law student to get closer to Archie, soon getting them both into complicated predicaments when Wendy becomes suspicious, Otto becomes insanely jealous, and Georges seems destined for acquittal.

Kline’s performance is so gratingly obnoxious, written like some sort of raunchy cartoon character – engaging in depravity and eccentricities and contradictory exclamations – that it’s shocking that no one in the editing process insisted on toning him down. So, of course, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Palin’s role, on the other hand, is perhaps the most amusing of the bunch, embodying a character who is clearly pitiable in his timidness and sympathy toward animals (he’s the caretaker of the aquarium that houses not only an important plot device, but also a fish named Wanda), yet is tasked by Georges to rub out the only witness against him (an elderly woman) – resulting in the repeated, humorously horrifying, accidental murders of her numerous terriers.

The entire cast is assigned personas that are tinged with dislikable qualities, save for Cleese himself, placed in the only commiserable stint by the writer – who is also John Cleese. He’s unethical and unfaithful, but those are the least upsetting endowments, considering the numerous contemptible elements exhibited by his cohorts. It’s almost as if each antihero is competing to be the most despicable of the lot. The notion that every single person involved in a heist is bound to betray one another is an amusing premise, but the intermittent slapstick and practically screwball comedy routines executed to embellish the idea are incredibly generic in design. The fusion of American and English actors is also a diverting maneuver, but the utilization is well below average. Nevertheless, the film has achieved enormous critical and commercial success (indeed, a psychological torture scene with fish, and Cleese caught with his pants down, are moments just over-the-top enough to remain unforgettable), and frequently finds itself on lists of the greatest of all comedies.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10