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A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda
1988

Director: Charles Crichton (and an uncredited John Cleese) 

Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin

I am sitting here, literally giggling to myself, as I watch the opening credits of A Fish Called Wanda for the hundred billionth time. I’m giggling in anticipation of all the awesome jokes and scenes and comic genius I’m about to see.

Yeah, I’m kind of a fan of this film. Just a wee bit.

The plot focuses on a gang of jewel thieves and opens with their diamond heist. The gang consists of Wanda (Curtis), who is romantically involved with gang leader George; Otto (Kline), a pseudo-intellectual posing as Wanda’s brother while sleeping with her on the side; and Ken (Palin), a stuttering animal rights activist who seems far too kind to be in a gang at all. When Wanda and Otto double cross George without his knowledge, barrister Archie Leach (Cleese, and yes, let’s all laugh at the Cary Grant reference) takes on George’s defense case. Convoluted story short, Wanda must cuddle up to Archie in order to get information on where George stashed the diamonds before leaving the country, all while keeping George in the dark and slightly insane and overly aggressive Otto at bay.

Explaining why a movie is funny is extremely difficult for me. It’s relatively easy to explain why a drama is gripping, but explaining why something really strikes my funny bone is so hard, especially a movie like this one where I laugh and snort and giggle in pretty much every scene. As Movie Guy Steve put it (holla at ya, boy!), you don’t want to resort to listing off all your favorite gags. Okay, Steve, I accept your challenge. I will try really hard not to simply list my favorite bits in this flick.

This is John Cleese’s movie. He came up with the idea, wrote it, starred in it, and apparently had a large hand in directing it as well. Being a fan of Monty Python, I can see Cleese using that same comic sensibility here. Nearly all characters in the film are absurdities. There is Wanda, who despite being a powerful femme fatale, also has a ridiculous crippling sexual weakness for any foreign language. There is Ken, whose love of animals gets ludicrously in the way of his life of crime. And finally, there’s Otto, a walking talking ridiculous cartoon who throws knives, swears loudly at the British, misquotes Nietzsche, and completely loses his temper when anyone dares to call him “stupid.” But while all the characters in Monty Python were absurd to the point of surreal, there exists in A Fish Called Wanda the faint possibility that its characters could exist. It’s a long shot, but there might be a Wanda in the world somewhere. The fact that the absurdity is somewhat dialed down from total and complete lunacy helps to give the film a far more focused feel than anything Python ever did. All the typical crazy gags are there in the outlandish situations, characters, and lines, but it’s all in service of the plot.


The major theme of the film, and a source of tremendous humor, is the fundamental cultural differences between Americans and Brits. Archie Leach, the least absurd character in the movie, is also painfully British to the point of being stagnated, and a very clear representation of perceived British emotional repression. Archie talks about the pain of being constantly embarrassed by anything; that line always reminds me of the time I spent a week and a half staying with a British host family outside London. The mother was constantly apologizing to me for everything; I kept trying to tell her it was fine, I was offended by nothing, but she was embarrassed nonetheless. Otto, and to a lesser extent Wanda, represent so many typical American stereotypes, most of them negative. Otto is too vulgar, too crass, too stupid, too insensitive, and far too aggressive. Wanda is overtly sexualized and loyal to no one, opportunistic to the last. So many of the comic situations in the film pit Otto against Archie, America versus Britain, and we get oh so many laughs from their matchups.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline turn in outstanding performances. From what I can tell of her filmography, Curtis had never done a role quite like this one before. She’s so powerful and so sexy – man is she sexy in this – and yet so funny as well. For his part, Kevin Kline completely deserved his Oscar for his role as Otto. He is so crazy and funny and scary and ludicrous, all at once. I will resort to one mention of a favorite bit of mine (thus failing Steve’s challenge): the subplot where Otto pretends to be romantically interested in Ken. Otto screaming at Ken while he’s walking away, shouting “Hands off, he’s mine!” slays me. As does the scene in the hallway where Otto says “You’re smart, you’ve got wonderful bones, great eyes, and you dress really interestingly.” I really don’t know entirely why, but I get conniptions every time Kline delivers that line. Absolute comic genius.

When I first saw A Fish Called Wanda, I was but a wee little Siobhan and I did not appreciate it at all. But I came back to it years later, and laughed so hard, I could hardly believe it. Then I saw it again and laughed even harder. It keeps getting funnier. I keep finding new things that make me laugh, little touches that I never noticed before. This is absolutely one of my favorite comedies ever.  I never, EVER, get tired of this movie.  I will undoubtedly see it another billion times or so.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.

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