Arrow Heads Vol. 47: Diving into A FISH CALLED WANDA

Screwball done right

Last year, Jamie Lee Curtis was on The Today Show promoting her then-current series Scream Queens, the Ryan Murphy-created horror comedy which the actress headlined in a Golden Globe-nominated performance. During the interview, when asked what drew her to the show, she cited the script, commenting, “I have never had great writing.” Certainly Perfect, Virus, and The Tailor of Panama prove Curtis’s claims aren’t unfounded, but they are definitely misguided. Anyone who has ever seen A Fish Called Wanda, the classic and timeless dark comedy in which Curtis shines in one of the brightest roles of her career, knows she is totally wrong. Written by John Cleese and directed by the legendary Charles Crichton, the film not only works as an ode to French farce, as a heist caper, as a love story, and as a look into cultural differences, but also holds up as one of the most endearing and funniest comedies ever made.

In A Fish Called Wanda, a diamond heist is being plotted in the heart of London by four individuals: Brits Georges (Georges Thomason), stuttering Ken (Michael Palin), and Americans Wanda (Curtis) and Otto (Kevin Kline). While the heist goes off without a hitch, the rest of the plan quickly stars to fall apart after Georges is arrested. In an effort to locate where the diamonds are, Wanda begins to romance Georges’ lawyer Archie (Cleese), much to the chagrin of Otto, whose jealousy threatens to destroy everything.

The reason A Fish Called Wanda still holds up as a genuinely funny movie is because it works like a well-oiled machine. The film has no discernable flaws to be found anywhere and is pretty much never boring. In a great display of film mechanics, the story’s initial heist plays out early on in brilliant fashion, leaving room for the characters to breathe and exercise in a collection of hilariously farcical situations. A Fish Called Wanda offers so many unique touches designed to make the film stand out, which end up being some of most memorable and side-splitting elements of the whole affair. There’s a great female character in the cunning Wanda, who uses sexuality for manipulation yet turns to jelly hearing men speak in foreign languages. Her sex scene with Otto, a fearless (yet intellectually insecure) hitman, is one of the most hilarious thanks to the cartoonish nature of it with her legs sticking straight in the air and his eyes becoming as crossed as is humanly possible. Otto’s tormenting of Ken by pretending he’s gay and insisting Ken is too in order to throw him off his game forgoes any stereotypes, resulting in some real comedy gold. Meanwhile, the moments where Ken, a die hard animal lover, is trying to kill off an old lady who has clear evidence against Georges are pure dark comedy as he ends up killing her dogs instead. Yet the key reason that A Fish Called Wanda’s comedy scores as much as it does is because everyone in the film is lying to each other, creating instant, unpredictable scenarios which the cast of comic pros admirably pull off.

At heart of A Fish Called Wanda is its golden script. Still every inch as hilarious in 2017 as it was in 1988, the film’s screenplay possesses so many potent and well-written laughs, totally dispelling Ms. Curtis’s comments. “What are you doing?!” exclaims Wanda at Otto as he shoots up the empty safe which was supposed to contain diamonds. “I’m thinking,” he shouts back. Rarely do two characters in comedies get to play off of each other in such a way with each maintaining an upper hand. “You know your problem? You don’t like winners,” Otto says to Archie at one point. “Winners? Like North Vietnam?” asks Archie. “We did not lose Vietnam,” Otto proclaims. “It was a tie!” Cleese’s script is so good, it even gives a performer like Curtis, an actress not known primarily for comedy, a chance to garner laughs of her own, which she firmly does, particularly in her rant to Otto. “I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs,” she screams at him. “But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?” Otto defends himself by stating, “Apes don’t read philosophy.” “Yes they do, Otto,” shouts Wanda. “They just don’t understand it!” In the past, actors have pointed to the notion that the quality of a film’s screenplay can mean the difference between good acting and bad acting. A Fish Called Wanda proves this idea to be more than true in the way its witty and tight writing brings out the best of some of the period’s most capable actors.

The beauty of a film like A Fish Called Wanda is how it gives all of its key cast members well-realized characters to sink their teeth into, which this cast does. Not only is no one wasted here, but each performer looks to be having genuine fun as they unearth their characters’ various quirks and eccentricities. Cleese may have seemed like the most unlikely of leading men at the time, but watching him bring Archie’s transformation to life shows a turn reminiscent of Cary Grant. Meanwhile, Curtis takes the femme fatale prototype that is Wanda and gives her a lovable silliness, while Palin as Ken goes full on madcap, scoring laugh after laugh as he takes his character to the edge. Yet it’s Kline (in an Oscar-winning performance) as Otto who nearly walks away with the whole film as he exposes the never-ending ego of his character and the endless fun to be had with it.

Nearly a decade after the success of A Fish Called Wanda, the entire team reunited for the 1997 comedy Fierce Creatures. Co-written by Cleese, the movie saw the cast play a new set of characters for a comedy about the takeover of a city zoo. The film remains an entertaining lark and there is much delight at seeing this comedic quartet work together again. Yet the strength in both the verbal and physical humor of A Fish Called Wanda eclipses it in every way, as it does with most comedies made in the years since. Although shot in the ‘80s, the film remains uncharacterized or touched by time in any way thanks to its intricately-made nature, manic energy, and continued value as one of the greatest comedy capers ever made.

The Package

The top special features on this Arrow release are the 2003 retrospective documentary featuring the entire cast as they reminisce about the joy of making A Fish Called Wanda and a present day appreciation with BFI historian Vic Pratt, who provides an interesting analysis of the film while also discussing its cultural significance.

The Lowdown

A genuine classic, A Fish Called Wanda remains cleverly bonkers through and through.

A Fish Called Wanda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Films.

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