A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda – 1988 | 106mins | Comedy | Colour
Without question the most successful feature film to emerge from the splintered Monty Python group, this is really a pretty standard heist comedy with a blown-up reputation. A Fish Called Wanda was a true British film blockbuster, feted as the greatest comedy film to emerge from these shores since The Lavender Hill Mob. Wanda proves the perfect vehicle for John Cleese‘s in depth deconstruction of the anal-retentive attitude of some British. Kevin Kline highlights the chief protagonist in this line of argument. Kline plays the manic Otto, a complete nut, but the power of repetition is so strong that the adoption of crusty British accents, digs at narrow-minded beliefs and, worst of all, outbursts about winning World War II are relentless throughout the movie. Cleese himself, here under the allure of the delicious Jamie Lee Curtis, turns to understandable jelly and flows along with this surge of anti-Brit debate.
It’s almost farcical in the hands of Kline’s wonderfully over-the-top performance. But when Cleese’s level-headed barrister pontificates about the British being dead and stuffy, hoping to escape from this anglicised hell via a quick one with Curtis and, amazingly, losing out to Kline’s deranged pleas for an apology, it batters a sensitive nerve. When Kline, convinced of Cleese’s importance in the crime, tries to make it up to him (with quite funny results), cowardly Cleese runs round his green and pleasant land like a frightened child, pleading for mercy and tossing away every ounce of dignity his character may have had. The rather obvious contrast between seductive American strip for passion and tired, sex-bored British strip for bed merely reinforces the cultural divide between the supposed super dude Americans and the restricted British. Stifled by his overbearing wife (actually a stunningly attractive and powerful turn from Maria Aitken), saddled with a whining, spoilt daughter and wandering through his highly paid, under-appreciated work with a sigh, Cleese is the epitome of Brit-lagged male. It’s the American influence that affects him (he goes round saying ‘Hi’, gets aroused by Jamie Lee and impressed by her interest in his work), risks everything to see her and finally grabs a gangster’s moll, turns his back on home, authority and the spirit of Britishness.
A Fish Called Wanda also deserves high praise. Any movie that can drag Charles Crichton out of retirement for one last bash should be celebrated, even though the homage to his own The Lavender Hill Mob and the Ealing ethos is negligible. Thirty years later the crooks can get away with it, but none of the four are anywhere as likeable as Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Alfie Bass or Sid James. However, to take the film on its own terms, the four central performances are uniformly excellent. Jamie Lee Curtis oozes sex appeal through out and Cleese does his usual pompous act to perfection although he’s hardly Cary Grant, as his character name would suggest. Mind you, A Fish Called Wanda is hardly His Girl Friday either! But it’s Kline and Palin that really steal the honours. Kevin Kline’s knuckle-headed; Ramboesque hit man crusades through the mess with determination and flamboyance.
Despite the fact that most of the film’s worse ideology is delivered via his character, there’s something fascinating in his knife-edge anger. Played in Steve Martin fashion, Kline forsakes subtle acting for all-out bedlam, latching onto Sellers-like insanity and spouting his Pythonesque obsession with Nietsche all over the place. Two moments stand out from the rest. One is his pent-up anger being expressed in a fairly quiet fashion, storming out past Palin and hastily smashing Jamie Lee’s framed photograph, which is surpassed by Kline’s hilarious attempts to cover up Jamie Lee’s seduction of Cleese when his wife turns up unexpected. With strained tales about the American intelligence operations and a quickly and desperately made-up name, this is Kline’s high point. His character has the power to seriously irritate but there’s no denying that the guy is still the coolest thing in the film. But for me, it’s Michael Palin who saves the film totally. With less to do than the other three, Palin can craft his stuttering character, mixing comic prat-falling with real pathos as he destroys Patricia Hayes’ pet dogs in Tom and Jerry cartoon fashion.
Originally Cleese wanted the blood and guts of real Python comic violence, but Crichton wisely toned it down for a more acceptable and funny level. Palin’s nervousness at Kline’s mock homosexuality, his un-stuttered ‘good!’ as he hears of childhood abuse for the black-clad madman and his sudden cure of stuttering as Kline finally meets his pseudo-end are all film high points. However, naturally, the best moment comes when Cleese and Palin meet. It’s for only one scene and quite near the but when it happens it’s classic stuff. Cleese is at his best waiting for Palin’s stutter as to the whereabouts of the diamonds and one can’t help wishing that the two old colleagues were together more. With showered praise no movie could possibly live up to, A Fish Called Wanda is an enjoyable crime caper and that’s all, with some legendary set pieces (Cleese stripping to Russian spouting/Palin with the chips up his nose).
Review© Robert Ross: Monty Python Encyclopedia.
Charles Crichton: Director
John Wood: Art Direction
John Comfort: Associate Producer
Jonathan Benson: Asst Director
Alan Hume: Cinematography
Hazel Pethig: Costume Design
John Jympson: Editing
John Cleese: Executive Producer
Steve Abbott: Executive Producer
John Du Prez: Original Music
Michael Shamberg: Producer
Roger Murray-Leach: Production Design
Charles Crichton: Script
John Cleese: Script
Stephanie McMillan: Set Decoration
Jonathan Bates: Sound
Chris Munro: Sound
John Cleese: Archibald \’Archie\’ Leech
Jamie Lee: Curtis Wanda
Kevin Kline: Otto West
Michael Palin: Ken
Maria Aitken: Wendy
Tom Georgeson: George
Patricia Hayes: Mrs Coady
Geoffrey Palmer: Judge