I liked A Fish Called Wanda when I saw it in theaters but I became obsessed with it when it played on HBO. That window probably represented a year of growing sophisticated enough to appreciate the intricacies of the comedy. When I first saw it I expected Wanda to really be a fish. And the poster led me to believe so, but it was not a talking fish movie. Nevertheless, on first viewing, I liked the silly stuff and the sexy stuff. The more I saw it I realized how it was working.
Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the only female in a gang of diamond thieves. Wanda and Otto (Kevin Kline) rat out their leader George (Tom Georgeson), but since George has hidden the loot, they can’t run off as planned. So Wanda seduces George’s lawyer Archie Leach (John Cleese) to try to get the diamonds. Meanwhile, Ken (Michael Palin) tries to kill the only witness but keeps hitting her dogs instead.
Kevin Kline rightly won the Oscar for Best Actor, a rare win for a comic performance. All of Otto’s tics were fantastic. “Don’t call me stupid” was the raging insecurity of a blowhard terrified of being found out. “What was the middle part?” every time he’s given a set of options. Speaking Fake Italian to turn Wanda on. Screaming “asshole” at passersby. His portrayal of a violent gun obsessed American probably seemed extreme in 1988 and tame in 2018.
Probably watching A Fish Called Wanda over and over on HBO made me appreciate how intricate the crime story sets up comedy set pieces. A major one being when Wanda convinced Otto to apologize to Archie, and has sent Archie to retrieve her lost locket with the key in it. They converge with Archie faking a robbery of his own house and Otto foiling it. That’s a lot to create an absurd scene and it’s all organic to the plot. The way Otto is struggling with humility and then takes out his rage on Archie and then gets frantically apologetic pays off every element of this simultaneously. Even Otto’s improvisational bullshit calling himself Harvey Manfrengensenton was something I quoted all the time.
Ken’s stutter was controversial even in 1988. I’m sure a 2018 movie couldn’t play stuttering for laughs but I always took the film as sympathetic to Ken. Otto is the asshole for mocking him and psychotic for torturing him. Plus, Ken is such an animal lover, the it’s sort of comic karma that all his crimes result in the deaths of beloved animals. Of all Otto’s insecurities, he wasn’t homophobic. He was happy to play gay to throw Ken off.
A middle school classmate of mine did swallow a tiny live fish in science class after seeing Otto do it in the movie. It wasn’t even as big as the smallest fish in Ken’s tank, and the student suffered no ill effects. I bet he didn’t know about movie editing so Kline surely did not really eat those fish.
30 years ago I think I took Wanda for granted as a sexed up femme fatale. Now that I realize how farcical her turn-ons are, how she becomes uncontrollably horny at the sound of foreign languages, I have even more appreciation for what a brilliant comic performance Curtis gives. I mean, the same way she crushed the striptease in True Lies. And yes, this implies that young Fred found it totally plausible that a grown woman would start fondling herself when a man spoke Italian or Russian.
Other things that probably couldn’t be done today include the finale at the airport. No airport, let alone Heathrow, would probably allow a gun toting sequence to be filmed there. Otto got the gun through security by tossing it around the metal detector and catching it once he passed through. I know it’s a comedy, but was security that lax in 1988?
Cleese got the gang back together for 1997’s Fierce Creatures. While it certainly wasn’t the masterpiece that A Fish Called Wanda is, I thought it was also funny and certainly didn’t deserve the bashing it got. It had a comparably complicated farcical plot with trying to save a zoo, and rewarded Palin with a character who now talked too much. The vicious dismissal of Fierce Creatures turned Cleese off from writing film again, and that is a tragedy. There could have been another Fish Called Wanda in his future oeuvre.
A Fish Called Wanda remains a stellar example of precision farce. I think the days of watching the same movie over and over on HBO are probably gone now that we have so many streaming options (and even HBO has on demand), but A Fish Called Wanda still works every time I see it.