Nathan: The Academy Awards famously don’t have much respect for comedy, and when they do, it tends to be misplaced, as evidenced by the fact that My Big Fat Greek Wedding got an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, while Groundhog Day, which has come to be regarded as a model of the writing form, didn’t. But not even the Academy’s geriatric fuddy-duddies could deny the brilliance of Kevin Kline’s goldfish-gobbling, panty-sniffing, cartoonish performance as self-styled intellectual Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. Kline, a respected Shakespearean actor whose most famous film role at the time was in the decidedly less comic Sophie’s Choice, plays the career criminal and full-time dumbass as a cross between the ugliest of ugly Americans and a psychotic Pepe Le Pew; he’s all demented id and hilariously misplaced pretension.
It’s the kind of huge, flashy performance that can completely overwhelm a film, and while it would be an exaggeration to claim that A Fish Called Wanda boasts three equally inspired performances (there’s a reason Kline walked away with the Oscar), the other three leads are blessed with the kind of chemistry found in the best rock groups and comedy troupes. John Cleese and Michael Palin are Monty Python’s Flying Circus alums, but there’s a sick, inspired joke in separating them for nearly the entire film, to concentrate on less-expected but equally inspired combinations like Palin and Kline, Kline and John Cleese (Kline’s background lurking in the film is a thing of beauty), and Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis. Cleese makes an unexpectedly inspired, convincing romantic lead. Palin is hilarious and poignant as a man who keeps destroying what he loves. And Curtis is a spitfire, a singularly inspired combination of sexy and funny. In the hands of a lesser actress, the character’s orgasmic reaction to foreign languages could, and should, feel silly to the point of embarrassment, for audience and actress alike. But Curtis pulls it off; she’s fearless in her physicality and her sexuality. It’s a brilliant performance that’s more than matched by her three fellow leads, and I have not yet touched upon the equally inspired supporting cast, or the Yorkies who meet unfortunate ends. What made this particular foursome such a brilliant combination?
Scott: Kline’s performance dominates the film, but it wouldn’t be as funny without the other cast members pinging off it. Primarily, there’s the Kline/Cleese dynamic, the vulgar American and the stuffy Brit, that results in Kline’s Otto tormenting Cleese’s Archie for nearly the entire film, until Archie turns the tables on him in the last possible moment. (“We did not lose Vietnam! It was a tie!” “I’m telling ya, baby, they kicked yer little ass there. Boooyyy, they whupped yer hide real good!”) Cleese’s performance is as robustly “British” as Kline’s is robustly “American,” and the film scores constant laughs off that culture clash. And Nathan, you’re right about the perverse genius of keeping Palin and Cleese away from each other for nearly the entire film, because it makes their one big scene together—Archie trying to get the name of the place where the loot is hidden, Palin’s K-K-Ken struggling mightily to get it out—play like gangbusters.
Mike: While I bow to nobody in my love for Kline as Otto (which I addressed in some depth when I wrote my Performance Review column about 1988’s Best Supporting Actor race), it was Curtis who unexpectedly blew me away this time. Wanda—the woman, not the fish—demands a tricky balancing act between shrewd self-interest and screwball insouciance, and Curtis walks the tightope briskly, without faltering. Her wistful tone when she asks Archie if he’s rich manages to sell the central romance in a matter of seconds while maintaining the character’s odd integrity, thereby avoiding the drippy third-act epiphany in which she Learns What’s Truly Important and magically becomes a better person, which is what’s killing contemporary Hollywood comedies. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon would kneecap each other for a part this juicy, though I’m skeptical that either could pull it off half so breezily.
Noel: It’s a minor part—and a one-note one—but I always want to put in a word for Tom Georgeson as the gang’s leader, George Thomason. The first half-dozen times I saw A Fish Called Wanda, I had no clue that the the George character is a riff on the stereotypical British gangster, because I hadn’t seen any of those movies yet. This time through, I could picture him stepping right out of this movie and into one of those early-2000s British crime pictures—or backward into one from the 1960s or 1970s, where the type originated.
Otherwise, yes, it’s the various Cleese/Kline/Curtis/Palin pairings that make this movie tick like a Swiss watch. Nathan, you mentioned Kline’s Pepe Le Pew-isms. I’ve always gotten kind of an Elmer Fudd vibe off Cleese in the scene where Otto pops up unexpectedly at Archie’s house and starts talking about being in the CIA. While Archie’s wife Wendy (Maria Aitken) grills Otto, Archie keeps looking around, slack-jawed and befuddled, like he’s just seen Bugs Bunny defy the laws of gravity.
Keith: Part of what I love about this cast is how non-intuitive it is. Cleese and Palin make sense together, but what business do Curtis and Kline have being in a film with Pythoners? Yet in a script with culture clash hardwired into it, they’re precisely the right Americans to bring in for the job. I’m not sure who saw those performances in them, but it’s an all-time great bit of roll-the-dice casting.
Noel: Cleese has said A Fish Called Wanda started as an homage to the Ealing Studios caper comedies, but then developed into a commentary of sorts on stifling British politesse vs. liberating American brashness. A lot of that has to do with attitudes toward sex. One of the funniest (and saddest) sequences in the film sees Archie and his wife Wendy getting ready to retire to their separate beds, never looking at each other or even getting partially naked in front of each other, while at the same time, Otto and Wanda are doing seriously freaky stuff to each other, with gusto. And throughout the film, Curtis is an out-and-out bombshell, always making sure her breasts are pushed upward and outward, aimed directly at her prey.
Nathan: I’m struck by how sexy the movie is, and that’s largely attributable to the cast and to a screenplay that’s astonishingly sex-positive for a comedy and a British film. Wanda has sex with every major male character but Ken, whom she kisses and seduces, and the film does not judge her for her voracious sexual appetite, or her use of sexuality to control the other characters. Curtis plays her as a woman in full, joyous control of her sexuality, and the film admires her more than anything else. Wanda is so sex-positive, it even allows Otto, a detestable moron in so many ways, to be sexy as well as sexual; he and Wanda really seem to enjoy their bed-acrobatics, and the film doesn’t have a problem with that, which is mighty refreshing.
Mike: There’s a funny-because-it’s-true aspect to the patently ridiculous sex scene between Wanda and Otto, though of course it’s also just funny-because-it’s-funny. Wanda being turned on by Otto speaking Italian, for example, lets Kline say a lot of decidedly unsexy things as he racks his brain for Italian words. But people really are attracted to anything foreign—when I waited tables many years ago, I used to sometimes keep myself amused by doing an English accent, and that was the only time female customers left their phone numbers on the bill. (Never called any of them, because the thought of letting them down by confessing I’m not really English was depressing, and keeping the charade up indefinitely seemed psychotic.) And while I’ve never smelled my own armpit during sex, I do believe most of us secretly like our own scent, a sketchy factoid that Kline exaggerated into unforgettable comedy. Movies take sex so seriously as a rule that it’s a pleasure to see one acknowledge the many ways in which it’s fundamentally silly.
Scott: Curtis is playing a femme-fatale type here; she stands ready to take out Otto and run off with all the diamonds herself, until they discover the safe is empty. Yet she’s no black widow: Her sexuality is more vivacious here than alluring and sinister in the classic crime-movie style. She does her business without shame and with a great deal of pleasure, and it brightens the comedy and romance substantially.
Keith: It’s also an example of how sex clouds the brains of otherwise-intelligent people. Wanda casts her spell on everyone, even the otherwise seemingly asexual Ken. Smartly, the movie gives her the same vulnerability. Gorgonzola!
Comedy and cruelty
Mike: Comedy and cruelty have gone hand in hand since the first audience laughed at the first schnook who slipped on a banana peel and potentially cracked several ribs hitting the ground. Even by those standards, though, A Fish Called Wanda is unusually vicious, reveling in pain (especially Ken’s). Cute little animals normally exist in a safe zone, but this movie murders one adorable pup after another, always in grotesque ways; the anguished cries of their elderly owner become a prompt for laughter. And while fish aren’t as cuddly, the scene in which Otto methodically eats the entire contents of Ken’s tank in front of him invites viewers to howl at a victim’s extreme mental anguish. (This is only slightly tempered by the knowledge that Ken is a criminal and an assassin, since Palin plays him as such a gentle soul, defined largely by his speech impediment.) How does the movie manage to avoid crossing the line from darkly funny into genuinely upsetting? Or is it precisely because it so gleefully crosses the line that it succeeds in swinging the pendulum back into the hilarious zone?
A corollary question: Why don’t the film’s various gay jokes seem offensive? Normally, humor predicated on gay panic bugs me, but Otto’s purely sadistic shtick about wanting Ken for a lover (“I love watching your ass when you walk! Is that beautiful or what?”) somehow doesn’t register as hostile, even when Ken asserts that murdering old ladies is better than buggering people. I mean, it’s plenty hostile toward Ken, but I don’t get the uncomfortable feeling I usually do when the very notion of homosexuality is treated as a source of comedy. Again, is it because Kline pushes it so absurdly far that it almost qualifies as satire, the way Stephen Colbert’s rants do, for instance? That’s my best hypothesis, but truthfully, I’ve never entirely understood how Wanda gets away with this stuff. Anyone have a better idea?
Noel: I think the gay jokes work because they aren’t gay-panic jokes per se. Ken finds Otto distasteful, regardless of what Otto has led him to believe about his sexual orientation. When Ken or Otto throw around words like “buggering” and “fruit” as insults, they aren’t rooted in distaste for homosexuality so much as distaste for other people in general. As for the overall cruelty of the comedy in Wanda, you’re right, Mike, that it flies because it’s so unapologetic and unabashed. Even with all the death and destruction, I wouldn’t call A Fish Called Wanda a “black comedy,” any more than I’d call a Road Runner cartoon one.
Mike: I see what you’re saying, Noel, but the damage Wile E. Coyote sustains in a Road Runner cartoon is self-inflicted. Plus, he’s the predator. Even Looney Tunes don’t generally treat the death of completely innocent creatures as comic fodder. I can’t think of many other examples at all, actually, which is why it seems so singular to me here. I feel like director Charles Crichton had to get the tone exactly right, which he did.
Nathan: I agree that part of what makes Otto’s flirtation with Ken is the fact that Ken’s just repulsed by Otto, who has just found one more way to fuck with his prey. It also helps that even when pretending to be gay to get under Ken’s skin, he doesn’t become a swishy caricature, which is certainly the way that gag would have played in 95 percent of comedies from the 1980s. (And before. Oh, and after.) He’s just his horrible, aggressive self. I think it also helps that the film, while cruel throughout, doesn’t hate its characters. It’s quite fond of Ken, despite the abuse it heaps on him; hell, it even has a certain blinkered affection for Otto, finding his bone-deep vulgarity terribly amusing, as well as pathetic. So while A Fish Called Wanda is certainly a dark comedy, it isn’t a hateful or misanthropic one.
Scott: I don’t think of A Fish Called Wanda as a black comedy so much as a farce, and the difference, in part, has to do with tone. Despite the terribly cruel things that happen to animals, or Otto’s sexual taunting of Ken, the film doesn’t play like it sounds by description. If I was told I was about to see a movie where three small dogs are killed, a guy eats a bunch of live fish from a tank, and a character gets harassed for being “gay,” the movie in my head would be significantly different than what A Fish Called Wanda turns out to be. While I’m not sure the Otto/Ken tomfoolery has been repeated in our more timid times, the comedy here is light and robust from the beginning, and I never thought for a moment that I should be offended by scenes that should be causing great offense.
The heist movie
Scott: I’m not sure exactly how Charles Crichton got the job to direct (and co-write the script for) A Fish Called Wanda, but I like to imagine he submitted The Lavender Hill Mob, his Ealing heist comedy from more than 35 years earlier, as proof he could pull it off. The Lavender Hill Mob concerns a plot to smuggle stolen gold bars out of the country in the form of miniature Eiffel Towers, a whimsical solution that suits a comedy. The heist in A Fish Called Wanda is really more a smash-and-grab job, with four masked intruders sweeping in and picking up the diamonds, then arranging a getaway that’s pretty simply and effectively orchestrated. Everyone would have gotten a nice share of the loot, too, if there were any honor among thieves, but Otto and Wanda betray George by ratting him out to the police, and George has already moved the diamonds from the safe as a precaution. (Side issue: The Americans are the ones here acting without honor. Is there something to that?) The heist in A Fish Called Wanda isn’t played for laughs, but it sets up two goals—Otto and Wanda’s retrieval of the diamonds, the rubbing-out of the old lady who could determine George’s fate—that set the rest of the comedy in motion. In that sense, it’s more of a criminal farce, though both farces and heist movies rely on the precise calibration of complicated plots, which Crichton and Cleese execute with aplomb.
Keith: It really does a nice job of playing with who knows what about whom and when, doesn’t it? At any given point, any two characters could be aligned, at odds, or apparently aligned, but actually at odds, and so on. The shifts give it energy and tension, and fuel the comedy.
Mike: Scott’s zeroed in one of the things that struck me about Wanda this time around: It’s the rare comedy that has a strong plot rather than merely a comic situation. Someone could make a purely dramatic version of the same story, though it’d obviously require a fair amount of rejiggering. The scene in which Archie robs his own house to secure Wanda’s locket, and is caught in the act by an uncomprehending Otto, is played for big laughs, but tweak it a bit, and it could work in a movie like, say, Blood Simple. A great deal of care went into shaping a narrative that functions properly even when the jokes are stripped away, which is not a virtue many contemporary comedies can boast.
Noel: I don’t think we’ve said enough about Crichton’s staging of this film, which relies on longish takes and simple camera moves, so the actors can build a comic rhythm. I actually think that style is more conducive to a heist film than a lot of quick cuts and crazy angles. Heist movies are like elaborate stunts, and it’s always more impressive when a stunt looks like it was performed in real time. One of my favorite shots in Wanda, for example, is sort of a throwaway gag where Wanda and Otto are smooching on Ken’s bed, then Ken walks in the front door of the flat, Wanda quickly moves over to the doorway of the bedroom to stall him, and the camera tracks with her. A few seconds later, the camera zips back over to Otto, looking dressed and dapper and screwing a silencer onto his gun, like he hadn’t been just getting ready to have sex a few seconds ago. It’s super-cool.
Keith: One thing that makes me a little sad about A Fish Called Wanda is that it now looks such an exceptional moment in the careers of all involved. Even factoring out Fierce Creatures, neither Cleese nor Palin got to be this funny again. And while it established Kline’s comedy bona fides, I’m still waiting for another role in which he gets to be as loose, inspired, and bordering on insane as he is here. (His work as Mr. Fischoeder on Bob’s Burgers often comes close.) Meanwhile, Curtis entered into another long stretch of being underutilized. Seeing her work in the Freaky Friday remake, it’s clear how much she can elevate so-so material, but I want another script like this to come her way. Then again, films this good really are rare, aren’t they? That’s why we treasure them.
Mike: Anybody else think this film would be titled simply Wanda if it were being released today? I remember being a bit confused when it came out—“Is it really about a fish?” (This seemed not entirely implausible, given the prominent role played by fish in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life.) Somebody in marketing would surely object that it’s too whimsical a title to attract certain quadrants. Just call it Wanda—nobody remembers that obscure 1970s film anyway—and play up Jamie Lee Curtis in the trailer. Sell it as a caper comedy about a sexy jewel thief. Whereas the original one-sheet included a human-sized fish in a criminal lineup alongside Cleese, Curtis, Kline, and Palin, with the name “Wanda” above it as if it were an actor in the film. It was clear at a glance it would be something offbeat.
Nathan: Keith, I would add Crichton to the list of folks for whom A Fish Called Wanda was a final peak; though he lived 11 more years, he never directed another movie. And Mike, I think you’re giving studios way too much credit: Wanda would still be too artsy and abstract a title, I suspect. If the film were released today (which I cannot see happening), it would have an even stupider, more pandering, more generic title, like International Affair, or The Wanda Case. And speaking of wasted potential, why didn’t John Cleese go on to star in a series of top-notch vehicles after A Fish Called Wanda? Or write himself a series of top-notch vehicles following Wanda? Instead, his career has largely been limited to supporting roles, and not particularly inspired ones at that.
Noel: The late 1980s and early 1990s were an unfortunate era for pop music and fashion, thanks to some grating, distracting trends in production (a lot of electronic slink and thudding drums) and maximalization (a lot of shoulder-pads and hairspray). Somehow, A Fish Called Wanda avoids all that. The light, almost calypso-inflected soundtrack sounds dated, but not in a way that kills the mood, and everyone in this film looks pretty fabulous. I swear, this movie just ticks all the right boxes.
Yesterday, Tasha Robinson kicked off our Movie Of The Week discussion of A Fish Called Wanda with her Keynote on how the film compares to Fierce Creatures, made with the same cast and a shared crew, but without anything like Wanda’s success. And tomorrow, Mike D’Angelo considers how the movie sees its American vulgarians, all full of life and profanity.