A Fish Called Wanda is a rollicking, madcap crime comedy that is only slightly dated in tone and 80’s soundtrack.
The London setting provides an interesting cultural backdrop for the movie’s main characters–two Americans and two Brits. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a femme fatale who falls for her mark, an unhappy barrister played by comedy giant* John Cleese. Both Curtis and Cleese are excellent in their roles, as is Michael Palin (who plays a stuttering, animal-loving criminal). However, the standout scene stealer in this film is Kevin Kline, as the dimwitted, jealous, and very dangerous Otto.
The film is very much a British comedy, albeit with two Americans in starring roles. Directed by Cleese and Charles Crichton, the movie moves swiftly, from one nonsensical scene to the next. Unlike most American comedies of the time, shots are held for just a moment past each punchline, filling the movie with a sense of displacement–perhaps the forberarer for today’s “Setup. Punchline. Awkward.” comedy routine.
Each character is at once a caricature (the stuttering animal lover) and also a fleshed out individual. Palin‘s Ken Pile feels infinite remorse for the death of a dog, but is unafraid to attempt to murder the dog’s owner. Palin’s humor is often physical in this film, with a wide-eyed look or a sidesplitting definition of Heathrow Airport.
Curtis‘s Wanda presents an interesting version of the foreign femme fatale who swoops in and mystifies men–the entire starring cast in this film. Wanda coyly manipulates the male characters, as Curtis effortlessly alternates between affected ingénue and strident con-woman. Cleese‘s Archie Leach is the stereotypical calm and collected British man, who is only ever really embarrassed by his own violations of propriety.
While the main actors all display creditable comic talents, Kline is the breakout star of this show, if only because his character is so larger than life. He’s dumb, but he’s angry. He thinks the London Underground is a political movement, but he’s also an ex-CIA agent who is unafraid to use violence to achieve his goals. Kline‘s character is also blessed with a number of quirks–“Don’t call me stupid,” the armpit-sniffing, his masterful command of fake Italian, and so on.
Every character has a multitude of humorous idiosyncrasies. Wanda’s extreme love of foreign languages, for example. These little quirks and character traits make the movie. The convoluted plot and romance are only distractions from the amusing interactions of the various characters.
While Cleese‘s script includes choice bits of dialogue, much of Kline and Palin‘s work was allegedly ad-libbed. Recognition must be given to Crichton and Cleese for the careful eye with which they directed the film.
Witness the death of the old woman’s finnal Yorkshire terrier. The audience knows what’s about to happen. The heavy object is going to crush the puppy. Ken Pile reacts visibly to the event and yet, the old woman herself has still not noticed. We are treated to a slow, quiet moment when the woman retracts the leash bit by squeaky bit till finally she is led to the death scene. It’s a comic scene that perfectly plays the nervous tension and anticipation of the audience.
More than anything, A Fish Called Wanda excels in those small moments when the audience is on the precipice of laughter, and the moments directly after each punchline, when the film wrings out more humor from unexpected sources. The film itself can be seen as a reflection of the differences between American and British comedy, but also a recognition of the similarities between them. After all, everyone, everywhere, laughs at the image of a man with fries up his nose.
*Because he’s tall, see.