A comedic tour de force with a performance for the ages: welcome to the wacky world of A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda may be a largely British production, but it is two Americans who ultimately steal the show. This is deliciously ironic when you consider the competitive nature of the movie’s characters, a gang of zany caricatures who go to great lengths to snatch some swag from under each others’ noses in a movie with so many twists and turns it will tie you in knots of hilarity, but irony has always been a staple of British comedy, an element of the fabled sophistication that puts our multicultural cast at loggerheads. This is British pomposity vs American showmanship, the inescapably prudish vs the bold and the brazen. The fact that most of these characters would not exist anywhere in the world doesn’t matter. The formula thrives on absurd stereotypes and farcical plot developments, and it works quite wonderfully.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a comedy of this nature in today’s crude and shock-driven climate. Here you have a cast of comedians who are not only well schooled in the art form, they wrote chapters in the rule book, and a couple of Yankee first-timers exceed all expectations. The movie stars Monty Python’s John Cleese and Michael Palin, and there are sketches that are reminiscent of that show’s farcical style, particularly during a series of scenes in which Palin’s stuttering assassin, Ken, is assigned to dispose of an an elderly witness, a task which proves quite the ordeal for an animal lover who winds up neck-deep in dead pooches. Ken is such a walking contradiction you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Murder may be his bread and butter, but thanks to his crippling conscience (at least when it comes to animals), you’re rooting for him as much as anyone; partly, one suspects, because you know he’s destined for failure, particularly when a rival assassin waltzes into town bursting with red, white and blue bravado.
Palin gives the kind of colossal performance one would expect from an actor who has given us such comedic gems as The Life of Brian‘s Boring Prophet, The Holy Grail‘s King of Swamp Castle and a Regimental Seargeant Major with a penchant for “Marching up and down the squuuuare a bit!” Cleese is equally impressive as Archie Leach, a preyed-upon barrister who sheds his humdrum existence for a duplicitous affair which ultimately bears fruit, extricating him from an oppressive domestic existence that is largely for show and tapping into the airs and graces of British privilege. Cleese plays a more reserved character than we are perhaps used to, but thanks to a deepening hole of deception there are flashes of the frantic and flailing Basil Fawlty here too, most notably in a scene where a suddenly liberated Leach dances naked in an apartment, only to be interrupted by a family who have recently leased the property. Not only are the parents appalled and dumbstruck, they are the very same who sold him his family home, and the only thing in reach to cover his exposed genitalia is a portrait of the family’s awestruck matriarch. Leach is a maelstrom of doddering manhood in a borrowed kingdom of highly-strung femininity. He has long-since accepted his role as the family’s perfunctory provider, a position of vanity which is completely impotent due to his wife’s inherited wealth. Polite, gullible and bereft of zeal, he is the typical British male in the minds of those who have never actually visited the country.
Otto – You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!
Archie – How very interesting. You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?
Otto – You are the vulgarian, you fuck.
Archie’s sugar-spun redemption comes in the form of Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sassy hellcat with a fetish for foreign accents and an insatiable appetite for wealth, one that seems tied to notions of freedom rather than greed, a predilection that proves their ultimate commonality. As Wanda sets about stealing the loot for herself while her gangster lover stands trial, she smooches up to Leach with the aim of obtaining information, but after she loses the key to the loot’s safe deposit box she is forced to up the ante, and as a consequence begins to fall for the man who she initially describes as “kinda cute in a pompous sort of way”, before informing jealous boyfriend Otto (Kevin Kline) that she’s “not into necrophilia”. At the time, Wanda probably means what she says. She is a woman drawn to danger and excitement, lying and cheating for the sheer thrill of it, but in the end it is Leach who proves the perfect antidote, a man who appreciates her for those qualities, as well as the more obvious kind.
A former scream queen most famous for her role as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s innovative slasher Halloween, Curtis wasn’t renown for her comic pedigree asides from a surprisingly assured outing in John Landis’ Trading Places, but she could not have asked for better guidance, and she excels as the insatiable Wanda, her libertarian fervour lighting up proceedings. The character of Wanda was never supposed to be American, but Curtis made such an impression on Cleese that he altered the screenplay to accommodate the actress without ever having met her. “I didn’t think I was going to make Wanda American until my daughter took me out to see Trading Places,” Cleese would say during a making of interview. “And Jamie walked on the screen and I said ‘who is this girl?'” When she first appears in the film, a coy beauty looking to dupe Archie for information regarding an upcoming case, we the audience feel exactly the same way.
Wanda – You just wanted to get me into bed.
Archie – I fell in love with you.
Wanda – How come you dumped me then.
Archie – I wasn’t rich enough, remember.
Wanda – Say something in Russian.
Archie – No.
Curtis oozes sexuality as the quick-witted Wanda, her physical attributes bamboozling a group of male admirers who would rather point the finger elsewhere. She and Cleese have such natural chemistry, and most of the movie’s stand-out scenes directly involve her, though she was just as shocked at being cast in the role as many moviegoers. “When I heard John Cleese wanted to speak to me, I remember thinking he was mistaken, and that he must have wanted to speak to [Curtis’ husband] Chris Guest because ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ had just come out,” she would explain. “I thought it’d be, ‘Hi, Jamie. Put Chris on.’ That’s really what I imagined. But I had lunch with him on Sunset. He said, ‘I’m writing this movie for you, and Michael Palin, and Kevin Kline, and myself. I’d like you to do it. I promise you you’ll have a great time. It’ll be very funny, and it’ll be very successful. I’m sure of it.’ I remember just sort of being, ‘O.K., John. Sure.’ Not really thinking it was real. Then a month later, two months later, we had a phone call . . .” Wanda is the sunshine who brightens Archie’s grey existence, and Curtis is utterly luminous, falling into the comedy fold with consummate ease as the bubbly shyster who all events seem to hinge upon. Cleese may have cast the actress on something of a whim, but it proved an inspired choice.
The casting of Wanda was the last piece of the puzzle, but the movie’s unsung hero came in the form of director Charles Crichton, a veteran filmmaker who had long been put out to pasture by an industry that had seemingly left him behind. Crichton’s previous movie, British crime drama He Who Rides the Tiger, had been made all the the way back in 1965, and at 78 the notoriously ruthless film business was hardly likely to give him a sentimental swansong based on past merit. Cleese, who was a big admirer, felt differently, and would even credit himself as co-director in a move that he would call an act of “subterfuge” on his part, explaining, “I knew the studio would be worried about Charlie’s age. I don’t know anything about how to direct… I simply prayed that Charlie would be on the set every morning. He shoots in a way as to convey the essence of every scene.”
Crichton was in on the project from the ground floor up. When Cleese first approached him about making a film way back in 1982, all Cleese knew was that he wanted to write a scene in which a man with a stutter struggles desperately to give information. They had no idea what the movie was going to be about and planned to take things slowly. All of this culminated in the kind of collaborative effort that shines through in A Fish Called Wanda. As Crichton himself would explain, “We had a week of rehearsals and then a gap of two weeks in which to incorporate any new ideas which had been thrown up and to polish the script. I think this is the ideal way to work, with everybody contributing their special talents and feeling they are part of the film.” The industry may have evolved dramatically during Crichton’s absence, but some philosophies never age.
Ironically, the movie’s stand-out performance comes not from a comedy veteran, but from a relative rookie who would bag a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in an environment which seemed to place him out of his depth. Kevin Kline plays mentally challenged American assassin Otto, a man who smells his own armpits for motivation, a pseudo-intellectual who uses meditation techniques “that the Buddhists used before they went into battle”. He also believes that the London Underground is a political movement, but call him stupid and he’ll ‘rub you out’. Kline’s is a performance of great energy and enthusiasm, of immaculate timing and physical inspiration, resulting in a myriad of priceless images such as a pre-sex Otto getting high off Wanda’s boot odour. As soon as we lay eyes on Kline’s farcical demeanour, we know we’re in for something quite prodigious, and he never lets up; he just seems to grow in outlandish spirit. Masquerading as Wanda’s brother, his discretion is essential to the surreptitious couple’s task, but as soon as he arrives on the scene he is boisterous, brash and belittling, jumping on Ken’s debilitating stutter with a flip relish that exemplifies his contempt for his fellow man ― particularly those of the stuck-up, British variety.
Otto – I love robbing the English. They’re so polite!
Otto is aloof to the entire world, but the downtrodden Ken proves the easiest and therefore most satisfying of victims. When Ken almost walks in on he and Wanda in what would appear to him an incestuous situation, Otto is quick to pounce, leading the easily manipulated Ken out into the hallway and proclaiming his deep attraction for him, one that he continues to ham up with an ever-increasing sense of glee. Lines like “I love watching your ass when you walk”, and, “Don’t go near him, he’s mine!” leave Ken feeling just a little uncomfortable, while tender kisses passed from finger to nose leave him visibly distraught. Later, when he wants information from Ken about the whereabouts of the loot, Otto resorts to eating his precious pet fish, and in his element as a sadistic bully almost grows to like it. “The English contribution to world cuisine: the chip!” he muses while a tortured Ken squirms in a restrained heap. At the risk of descending into pun territory, it’s a delicious moment, the kind that are everywhere in this movie.
As superior as he imagines himself, Otto is little more than a pretentious buffoon, and it is for this reason that such a cruel and arrogant character proves so endearing, a testament to Kline’s ability as a comedy actor. Otto is opinionated, jealous and completely lacking in humility, and we love him for it. His bumbling ineptitude, the kind that completely betrays his cultured facade, is central to the movie’s comedic power, and when he is forced to swallow his pride and lie for the good of the scam, he is even worse, bursting into expletives when practising an apology or introducing himself as Harvey Manfred… jen… sen… den of the CIA when trying not to blow his cover. Kline, who wasn’t renown for comedy prior to A Fish Called Wanda, had been a fan of Python for years, and the chance to work with some of comedy’s most profound influences was a no-brainer. In the end, he lived up to his peers and then some.
Cleese, who had always been a leading face in the Python ranks, was something of a late starter when it came to branching out for a solo feature film. Other Python members had already taken that step, most notably Python animator Terry Gilliam, who had delivered such critically acclaimed movies as 1985’s visually stunning, dystopian classic Brazil. But Cleese was always cautiously thorough, producing 13 drafts of the ‘Wanda’ screenplay over a period of several years, with read throughs commencing as early as 1986. There were also plot problems, which isn’t surprising for a movie with so many offhand developments and absurd relationships, but for a long time the main obstacle was Archie, who began as a more rambunctious character in the Cleese mode. “We had a read through in ’86, and every one of the characters worked except for Archie,” Cleese would explain. “Michael said, ‘Just take the character down a bit.’ I was pushing too much, because I wanted Archie to be funny. And I needed to realize that the big laughs are going to come from Kevin and Michael, and the stuff I was doing with Jamie needed to be authentic and quite real.”
The finished product may have been a long time coming, but boy was it worth it. A Fish Called Wanda is one of the great comedies of modern cinema. This is an old school caper, traditional comedy that doesn’t rely on technical quirks or shock value, and which quite frankly doesn’t need to. Ultimately, it is about great timing and performances, about chemistry and camaraderie and a host of talented individuals relishing in the task at hand. It is about enjoyment; not only for those of us watching, but for those taking part, and ultimately that’s what comedy is all about.