Sunday, January 26, 2020



Director: Charles Crichton
Screenplay: John Cleese based on the story by John Cleese & Charles Crichton

After Kevin Kline saw his performance at a preview showing of “A Fish Called Wanda,” he was convinced his performance was so awful that he would never work again. Instead, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, one of the rare occasions a comedic performance has won. 

Considered by some, the unofficial 5th Monty Python film, written by John Cleese, and starring him and fellow-Python Michael Palin. I'm not entirely sure I can go that far, not that Monty Python's influence isn't obviously here, it's all over the movie, but this is too tight of a narrative for them. That said, “A Fish Called Wanda,” is certainly one of the most outlandishly funniest films of the last thirty years;  I've seen people argue that it's the best comedy of the '80s and that's saying something considering how revered that era is for comedy films. The film’s story weaves a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle satire on British & American differences, while simultaneously telling an incredibly convoluted tale of jewel thieves constantly crossing, double-crossing, and sometimes triple-crossing each other. 

It’s not a typical con movie though, the crime occurs right in the first ten minutes, the rest of the movie is the criminals scheming and hiding each other and trying to con each other into getting the jewels they already stole for themselves. I’ll try to simplify the story as much as I can. The Wanda in the title, not only refers to the femme fatale, (Jamie Lee Curtis) the one who’s trying to double-cross everybody the most, but to a literal fish that animal lover Ken (Palin) cherishes, along with numerous other fishes, and basically all other animals. He’s the son of George (Tom Georgeson) the head planner of the heist, who becomes incarcerated afterwards, but not before hiding the jewels from everyone else. Wanda, is currently playing George, along with her “brother” Otto (Kline) who’s probably the most obnoxious American is the history of film, and particularly hates it when somebody calls him stupid. The joke being that he’s incredibly stupid, to such an extent, at one point, Wanda lists off a long list of things he’s wrong about. (Insert your own Trump joke here if you want, I'd rather not.) 

Wanda’s also playing Otto, planning to take him out afterwards, because of course she is, however after George’s incarceration, she begins going with his barrister Archie Leach (Cleese, character symbolically named after Cary Grant’s real name) to try and get information out of him. This is about the first twenty minutes of the film, and it gets more ridiculous and hilarious from there. 

The film was directed by longtime British comedy director, Charles Crichton, who on the surface is kind of an odd directing choice. He'd been a comedy director forever, sure, but he wasn't exactly a huge name to begin with and this was long after his prime. He worked on a lot in British television, but he had only directed one theatrically-released feature film in the previous two decades before "A Fish Called Wanda". Previously the only movie that he was really known and remembered for was "The Lavender Hill Mob", which was also a comedy movie about some conmen, and actually is really good; it's noteworthy for a great Alec Guinness performance, and the film won the Screenplay Oscar in 1951. 

He is important to the film though. I have no doubt that film emerged more from John Cleese's mind then Crichton, but Monty Python's humor was improv inspired and even their works that aren't literally just a random bunch of sketches shoved together, are basically still just a bunch of random together. I mean, yeah, there's plot and stories to "...The Holy Grail" and "...Life of Brian", and those are exceptional movies, but it's hard to say that all those scenes would naturally go together in other films to tell a story. Crichton though was a movie veteran who was an expert at structure, so I imagine he probably had the job of taking this idea from Cleese and forming and shaping it into a manic but elaborate jewel thief story, that involves several disturbing animal deaths, including the death of a fish, as a manner of torture. 

I'm a bit surprised "A Fish Called Wanda" gets so little recall these days, it's twisted in that kind of way that should be more memorable and outlandish. I think it's the possible that a post-Farrelly Brothers/Judd Apatow form of a Hollywood comedy world has sort of altered some of our older interpretations of comedy, but still, like, this is some classic screwball comedy though. Especially with how the major American performers are naturally juxtaposed to the sensibilities of the British performers. I love the running joke that Wanda is erotically turned on by hearing foreign languages, so Otto gives the most absurdly stereotypical faux-Italian that you can imagine, and then, when Archie begins speaking in several different languages, legitimately, speaking them, from somebody who was taught very young, she gets way more aroused when she hears foreign languages spoken correctly, and from a proper upstanding Brit as well. This joke gets funnier btw the more foreign languages invade out entertainment avenues, especially with Korean films and music having suddenly taken over these days, but even before then, yeah Americans are utterly fascinated with people speaking other languages, as long as we never actually learn to speak them ourselves; that's true then, it's true now. 

I don't know how much some of those modern comedic sensibilities have inched their way towards reinterpreting "A Fish Called Wanda" but it certainly isn't talked about enough. It's a classic comedy involving, sex, nudity, slapstick, a stuttering hitman, and the accidental killing of three Yorkshire terriers, it all adds up to a roustabout getaway, that’s as irreverent as it is outlandishly funny. 

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