"Don't Call Me Stupid!"
As the credits for A Fish Called Wanda begin and we realize that John Cleese and Charles Crichton co-wrote and directed what we are about to see, what follows should be a guaranteed comedic masterpiece. A glorious melding of minds that gave us Monty Python and what is probably the masterpiece from the Ealing Studios, The Lavender Hill Mob. With these two geniuses at the helm, what could go wrong? The answer of course (and in the most British manner) is everything!
The story fools us right away, posing as a typical heist film. We quickly meet all the characters as they prepare to steal a large stash of jewels. The actual heist lasts a few minutes at most, as it quickly becomes apparent that the film is far more interested in the absurd idiosyncrasies of its irresistibly naughty characters as they constantly try to rip off and one up each other.
I will reveal very little plot, because this perfectly oiled machine offers up rapid paced hilarity that will keep you giggling and guffawing throughout its breezy runtime. Pay close attention to the smaller side characters throughout the film as they deliver some of the best lines.
A Fish Called Wanda is the ultimate refresher for those tired of typical American comedy. It’s no surprise coming from John Cleese that the characters, on paper, would read as simple stereotypes. But, in the hands of these gifted actors, they become living, breathing train wrecks that we simply cannot take our eyes off. Cleese himself plays the pompous, uppity barrister who is simply hopeless if a pretty girl with cleavage bats her eyes. Said girl is played pitch perfectly by Jamie Lee Curtis (in what I would argue is her finest role). She plays Wanda, the gorgeous American girl duping Englishmen left and right and doing whatever she pleases, all with a beautiful smile and a healthy dose of glee. Michael Palin plays the fish obsessed (he gets to deliver the titular line), stuttering man who is terrified of the foolhardy American man's sexual advances (Kevin Kline giving his career best). Kline's character is my personal favorite, a wonderful over-exaggeration of the insecure American man. When he needs to "think" he fires a gun, when he needs to relax he stares at himself in the mirror as he plays with delightfully phallic swords (an hysterical pre cursor to the opening of American Psycho, which offers up skewering satire about half as well) and an absolute obsession with not being called stupid under any circumstances.
A Fish Called Wanda is break-neck paced comedy unlike any I've seen before or since. Unlike the typical comedy we see nowadays (formulaic crap like The Hangover or Date Night), nearly every moment is jam packed with substance, subtext, creativity, ingenuity, expert comedic timing, Buster Keaton-esque slapstick and vicious, biting satire. This film fears no one and gives us some delectably disgusting humans to cozy up to. Certainly an influence (whether conscious or not) on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and any comedy that attempts fast paced, witty dialogue. If you like your comedy a little amoral and a good amount dark, look no further than this 1988 masterpiece.
- Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center