What To Watch: It’s All in the Timing of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (1988)

Planets align in this timeless black comedy.

A Fish Called Wanda is 1988 comedy about a pair of British thieves who hire a sexy American woman and her brother (or that’s what they tell them) to help pull of a big heist that leaves everyone double-crossed and the jewels gone missing, all while an unsuspecting barrister gets caught in the middle.

Irreverent comedy. Is there anything better? It’s always had a special place in my cinematic heart, made all the more comfortable by my ridiculous habit of laughing at pretty much anything. Pop in an early Jim Carrey film, a Mike Myers title, any Mel Brooks movie … and I’m a hopeless mess of spastic giggles. So naturally, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was in endless loops of playback. With A Fish Called Wanda, it took only one look at the cast and writers to be on board, and even now, nearly 30 years later, it is still one of the funniest movies ever made.

THE STORY: Wanda (the person, not the fish) is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, a brash, unsophisticated American woman with a curvy figure and sexual charm that gets her the attention she needs and the distraction she intends. Her current lover is Otto (Kevin Kline), a slightly off-kilter maniac who is obsessed with two things: his own body aroma and a tendency to unhinge a bit around the word ‘stupid,’ especially when directed at him (which is generally warranted). Oh, and a ludicrous level of jealousy. So three things.

They tell fellow criminals Georges (Tom Georgeson) and Ken (Michael Palin) that they are brother and sister, but are secretly planning on betraying the two once a robbery is over. After the heist goes off without a hitch, they call the police on Georges but when they go to grab the gems from the safe-house, they learn that Georges has already moved them. A double-double-cross. Now they need to find the loot, but with Georges behind bars, it’s a challenge, so Otto puts pressure on the stammering, timid, animal-loving Ken while Wanda works her magic on the barrister in charge of Georges’ case.

A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda, 1988 © MGM/UA Communications Co.

That would be Cleese, playing Archie Leach, the straight man in all of this, and the hapless lovable loser who plays right into the hands (and wiles) of Wanda … the woman, not the fish. Often laugh-out loud funny, the film is filled with great performances, though it’s Kline who arguably steals the show in an Academy Award-winning turn that is an inspired bit of lunacy. Directed by Charles CrichtonA Fish Called Wanda is a viciously sharp comedy with a delightfully mean-spirited edge that is both smart and silly. Those are two words to me that in any film, make it one to see.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While Kline is a kinetic force of comedy throughout, there is a subplot with Palin’s Ken, a genuinely kind-hearted man who suffers from a stress-induced speech impediment that causes him to stammer. This in itself becomes fodder for a number of funny moments, but it’s Ken’s misadventures–he a devoted animal rights enthusiast–in trying to kill the only witness to the crime, an owner of three tiny dogs, that is particularly funny, with Palin doing some of the best work of his career.

A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda, 1988 © MGM/UA Communications Co.

Palin is an expert at giving his on-screen partners the upper edge, and in his scenes with Otto, Wanda, and even Archie, he is sublimely good, giving them the lead in the process, getting the most of their performances. Watch him in a scene when Otto primes Ken for information, eating his precious fish, one-by-one, and then a moment later when Archie arrives asking the same. This is masters at work.



A GREAT MOMENT: I can’t say enough about the film’s numerous physical comedy bits, but it is done best in a moment when Wanda and Otto need to find the stolen jewels, and Wanda figures the best way to do that is to get close to the lawyer defending Georges. Archie, who is in a loveless marriage, is of course, immediately enamored with the young buxom woman, especially as she shows a lot of sexual interest in the barrister. She is simply trying to see what Archie knows, but is using her ample assets to weaken his defenses.

A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda, 1988 © MGM/UA Communications Co.

The tactic is not one Otto is fond of, who is rigorously jealous of Wanda. One night, Leach, thinking his wife and daughter are out of the house, invites Wanda to join him for drinks. She comes to play, and during this teasing tryst, Wanda loses her locket, which holds a rather important key inside while Otto, suspecting his lover is cheating on him, sneaks into the house to keep an eye on the whole affair. And so, with Archie on the very cusp of marital infidelity, a woman using him for the wrong reasons, and her psychotic boyfriend ready spring, this is precisely when Archie’s wife and daughter return to the house with all points converging in the sitting room where it’s a game of constant misdirection in order to keep a number of secrets hidden. It’s a slapstick comedy routine with incredible timing.

A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda, 1988 © MGM/UA Communications Co.

I love this this type of large-scale, complex comedy, wholly dependent on the spinning plates, always with the audience believing any one could come tumbling at any moment. The small space is the perfect setting as only two pieces of furniture and one door provide the character blocking and reveals to the scene, giving the viewer all access while the participants remain just out of line of sight of each other. Otto and Wanda are at opposite ends but are adept at making use of the cover, leaving Archie directly in the bewildering middle, never quite sure what is happening though by the end, finding a track to make things work.

A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda, 1988 © MGM/UA Communications Co.

The real joy of the scene though, and why it remains the film’s finest in terms of direction and presentation, comes from Wendy (Maria Aitken), Archie’s wife, the ‘victim’ in all of this. While the scene might have been funny enough with just Archie, Wanda, and Otto, having Wendy at the center puts the audience on a joyful edge, giving the moment a great sense of comedic suspense. She is no fool, even if she is unaware, and this fact makes her all the more effective. It’s just one of a slew of smart choices. The ‘XK-Red 27 Technique’ was for a long time after, my go-to comeback.

THE TALLY: One of the hardest things any comedy film faces is sustaining its tone, keeping the funny coming without wearing away on a theme. A Fish Called Wanda maintains its fast-paced insanity without a single lapse, and all the while, it’s just really fun to watch. Cleese perfected this type of style in his short-lived Fawlty Towers series, and there are shades of that all throughout this movie. It’s what to watch.

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