MOVIE REVIEW | A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I liked it 25 years ago when I probably understood, at best, half of the jokes.  Getting all of them now just made its genius all the more obvious.”

Wanda 1.jpg
“To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs.”

These days, I’d say America has pretty much won the war when it comes to pop culture dominance and influence in Australia.  But when I was kid, it felt much more 50/50 between the States and Britain. Obviously there are still plenty of amazing British movies and TV shows out there, but I feel like it’s more niche now and has to be sort out.  Maybe I’m just projecting because I know I myself consume a lot more American stuff while my comedy snob side says I should like the English gear more.  All of that is a long, long winded way of getting to what may have been the greatest mashing together of those two comedic sensibilities I’ve ever seen, A Fished Called Wanda.

Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto (Kevin Kline) claim the be brother and sister.  Only they’re not siblings, they’re lovers.  Lovers in London who have teamed up with geezer thief George (Tom Georgeson) and his stuttering sidekick Ken (Michal Palin) for a diamond heist worth tens of millions of dollars.  Thanks to Wanda and Otto’s double cross, George is immediately arrested.  Only, he was ready for something like this, so when they American pair return to their hideout, the stolen diamonds are already gone.

Before being caught, George managed to hide the key to the loot, which is recovered by Ken.  Ken hides the key in his fish tank, but is seen by Wanda who manages to steal it later.  But the key is no good as she has no idea what it unlocks.  So Wanda and Otto devise a plan that she will get up close and personal with George’s defence lawyer, Archie (John Cleese).  Assuming George will confide in his lawyer, Wanda hopes to seduce the location out of Archie.

In 1988, Palin and Cleese were already comedy legends.  Neither had rested on the legacy of Monty Python and they were both still revered and relevant.  Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline were both successful and famous Hollywood actors, but I don’t think either was highly regarded for their comedic work.  Which is why they stood out as the real MVPs as I watched A Fish Called Wanda.  That’s not to take anything away from how hilarious Cleese and Palin are, but their hilarity was never in question and never a surprise.  To see Curtis and Cline go toe to toe with these two comedic heavy weights, and more than hold their own, makes them stand out that little bit more.

And to get back to my rambling intro to this review, the other real success of Cleese’s script and the core quartet’s performances, is the way he crashes the British and American comic sensibilities into each other.  That collision should be disastrous, or just plain clunky at best.  But the big, loud, cartoony performance of Kline is the perfect foil for the buttoned down, polite restraint of Cleese.  While Curtis’ seductress routine is such a quintessentially American opposite to the posh repression of the English world around her.
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I probably haven’t seen A Fished Called Wanda in 25 years.  I knew I liked it, but it was so long ago, and I was just a kid, so I had no idea why I liked it when I was 10, or if I would like it with adult eyes.  I shouldn’t have worried, it’s an adult comedy starring two major parts of possibly the greatest comedy troupe of all time.  I liked it 25 years ago when I probably understood, at best, half of the jokes.  Getting all of them now just made its genius all the more obvious.

A Fish Called Wanda
Directed By – Charles Crichton, John Cleese
Written By – John Cleese

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about A Fish Called Wanda?
Roger Ebert
The London Telegraph
Media Consomme

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