“Let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”
In the late-1980s a motley crew of criminals – made up of a ruthless Cockney gangster; his sexy, double-crossing moll; a dim-witted (but not stupid) former CIA operative; and a stuttering, animal-loving dog murderer – teamed up to pull off a diamond heist in London’s Hatton Gardens. The plan was simple and executed with precision, but in their rush to double-cross each other things got thrown a little off-course.
So much for honor among thieves.
WHY WE LOVE IT
Because there’s no reason not to love it. A Fish Called Wanda is one of those rare gems where the script is both clever and original, the casting is top-notch, the direction is superb and the comedic timing is spot-on. Filled with twists, double-crosses, and people turning on each other at the drop of a hat, it makes for a hilarious romantic caper.
Monty Python‘s John Cleese was the creative driving force behind the movie. His mildly vulgar, gag-filled screenplay (one that took him five years to write) takes aim at classic British and American stereotypes and neither nationality emerges unscathed. While technically it’s Wanda’s greed that propels the plot, it’s the ongoing rivalry between the two (the snobbish, effeminate Brits and the crude, obnoxious Yanks) that drives the film and provides much of the humor. But when you get right down to it the storyline – hilarious though it may be – comes in second.
The success of this movie lies in its eccentric characters and the performances given by the actors – particularly Kevin Kline as the jealous, psychopathic, and less-than-brilliant henchman, Otto (a performance that garnered him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and Michael Palin, (Cleese’s former Monty Python cohort) who’s no slouch as Ken, Otto’s stuttering, animal-loving whipping boy. The interactions between the two make for some of the best scenes of the film. Jamie Lee Curtis, in what is arguably the best role of her career, displays an adept comic talent as quadruple-crossing vixen Wanda. It makes you wonder why she doesn’t team up with her husband, comedy great Christopher Guest, more often. And of course, there’s Cleese himself as the sexually and emotionally repressed lawyer, Archie Leach, the object of Wanda’s investigation – and eventual affection. Together they make up one of the best ensemble casts ever to grace the screen.
And they had great material to work with. The script gives them ample opportunity to flex their comedic muscles with one hilarious sequence after another. Whether it’s Cleese performing one of the most un-sexy stripteases of all time, Kline eating live fish in front of a horrified Palin, or an exasperated Curtis trying to thwart Kline while simultaneously being seduced by Cleese, the laughs come hard and fast and don’t stop until the credits roll.
MOMENT WE FELL IN LOVE
Otto’s face when he first hears Ken’s stutter is priceless. It happens early on and sets the tone for their relationship as well as Otto’s general jackassery. This guy’s an asshole and he isn’t afraid to show it.
The best thing about A Fish Called Wanda is its enduring humor and re-watchability (that’s a word now). It gets funnier with each viewing and over twenty years after it was first released it remains at the top of my list. Every scene is a gem, the comedic timing is spot-on, and the performances are brilliant. Loved it then, love it now, will likely love it for a long time to come.