Should I Watch..? 'A Fish Called Wanda'

Updated on June 3, 2019
Benjamin Cox profile image

Ben now has a Twitter account for this blog - follow him at @shouldiwatch2 so you can stay up to date with all his latest content and more.

Teaser poster
Teaser poster | Source

What's the big deal?

A Fish Called Wanda is a comedic heist film released in 1988 and was co-written and directed by Charles Crichton, making this the final film of his long career. The film follows a gang of jewel thieves who begin to double-cross each other after the loot is stolen by the gang's leader. The film stars John Cleese (who also co-wrote the film), Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, one of three Academy Award nominations the film achieved. Released to widespread critical acclaim, the film went on to win audiences over with earnings in the US of $62.5 million and topped the box office six weeks after its release. The film was followed by a spiritual sequel called Fierce Creatures in 1997 but it failed to make the same impression as this film.

Enjoyable

4 stars for A Fish Called Wanda

What's it about?

Career criminal George Thomason is planning a jewel heist together with his right-hand-man Ken Pile, a stuttering animal-rights supporter and two Americans: weapons expert Otto West and con artist Wanda Gershwitz. The theft itself goes like clockwork and the group stash the diamonds in a safe hidden at a rundown warehouse. However, Otto and Wanda (who are secretly lovers) decide to betray George and make off with the loot themselves. Giving Goerge's name to the police, they return to the warehouse but discover that the diamonds have already been moved to another location.

Desperate to recover the diamonds, Wanda decides to seduce George's barrister -the heavily repressed Archie Leach - who falls for her charms almost instantly, in an effort to work out where the diamonds are. Otto, meanwhile, finds his short fuse being increasingly tested which results in random outbursts of violence while Ken is ordered by George to kill the only witness to the crime - the frail and elderly Mrs Coady. If only things were that simple...

Trailer

Main Cast

Actor
Role
John Cleese
Archie Leach
Jamie Lee Curtis
Wanda Gershwitz
Kevin Kline
Otto West
Michael Palin
Ken Pile
Tom Georgeson
George Thomason
Maria Aitken
Wendy Leach
Cynthia Cleese
Portia Leach
Patricia Hayes
Eileen Coady

Technical Info

Director
Charles Crichton
Screenplay
John Cleese*
Running Time
108 minutes
Release Date (UK)
14th October, 1988
Rating
15
Genre
Comedy, Crime
Academy Awards
Best Supporting Actor (Kline)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Director, Best Original Screenplay
*story by John Cleese and Charles Crichton
Palin (left) and Kline (right) are supremely funny, playing polar opposites as an animal-loving goon and psychotic ex-CIA operative respectively.
Palin (left) and Kline (right) are supremely funny, playing polar opposites as an animal-loving goon and psychotic ex-CIA operative respectively. | Source

What's to like?

Without question, this is the strongest non-Python collaboration ever produced by members of the Monty Python team. A Fish Called Wanda is a hilarious comedy of the sort you rarely see these days, a deliberate throwback to the farcical Ealing Studio comedies of the post-war era like The Ladykillers or Passport To Pimlico. Cleese, playing the most straight-faced character in the film, is the embodiment of British repression and sparks off well with Curtis as the impossibly vampish Wanda and the brilliant Kline as the psychotic Otto. In fact, all the cast deliver fantastic performances - even Palin's stuttering sidekick Ken is a remarkable piece of acting given the obvious complexities that come with the role. Crucially, they all interact with each other in different ways that sometimes evolve during the movie which not only makes this feel smarter than many of its contemporaries but also, weirdly, more believable despite the over-the-top nature of the narrative.

But the film belongs to Kline whose performance is a riot from start to finish - after all, when was the last winner of an acting Oscar who appeared in a comedic role? From his unforgettable love scene with Curtis to his foul-mouthed tirade with Cleese, he throws himself into the role with such aplomb that you can't imagine anyone else doing it justice. The script isn't afraid to take challenges or dumb itself down and unlike so many other comedies I could mention, doesn't resort to toilet humour or bodily functions. But the laughs are there on screen so you don't have to go looking for them or pay attention to crisply delivered one-liners because it's an easy film to watch.

Fun Facts

  • Cleese and Crichton initially tried to produce a film together back in 1969 but the project fell through. Reuniting in 1983, the pair began work on this film - Cleese's only idea was to have a man with a stutter trying to share important information while Crichton's was to see a man ran over by a steamroller.
  • During the film's theatrical run in Denmark, a man named Ole Bentzen actually died due to laughing too hard during the interrogation scene when Palin's character has chips shoved up his nose. His heart rate ran to between 250-500 beats a minute and he died of cardiac arrest.
  • Cleese chose the name Archie Leach - Cary Grant's real name - for two reasons. Firstly, Cleese was born just twenty miles away from where Grant was born and secondly, Cleese claimed that the role would be the closest he would ever get to being Cary Grant.
  • Palin's father stuttered so Palin made sure to include his own experiences of that in his role such as Ken only stuttering around people he didn't like. He later founded the London Centre for Stammering Children after his performance.

What's not to like?

Sadly, not all of the humour has dated well but that's to be expected. But aside from British viewers playing "spot the cameo", I can't think of much I didn't like. My only real gripe is that the film manages to balance the crime with the comedy but that only means that the movie isn't as funny as you'd hope for all the time. It's as though the comedy has to stop and explain where we are in the story, which does get a little convoluted in places. There is also a noticeable amount of humour derived from poking fun at the British which, given Cleese's later comments on subjects like immigration and Brexit, suddenly take on a new meaning.

But generally speaking, this is an excellent comedy that offers a gentle change of pace from the slew of teenage sex comedies and uninspired parody films we tend to get these days. It harks back to a time when comedy wasn't just about grossing your audience out but genuinely making them laugh through performance, dialogue and situation. It's the perfect riposte to something like American Pie which feels crude, unimaginative and misogynist by comparison.

Cleese plays to his authoritarian strengths as the most straight-faced of all the characters to hilarious effect. Were it not for Kline, this would be his film for the taking.
Cleese plays to his authoritarian strengths as the most straight-faced of all the characters to hilarious effect. Were it not for Kline, this would be his film for the taking. | Source

Should I watch it?

As enjoyable as it is old-fashioned, A Fish Called Wanda is a wonderfully paced and brilliantly performed comedy that can't help but delight. It just feels so different from many comedies we tend to see these days but here is one film that happily engages with you and entertains without resorting to cheap tactics. Kline steals the show but all cast members bring their A-game to this picture which is a fitting tribute to director Crichton, a veteran who delivered possibly his best picture with his last ever film.

Great For: viewers tired of endless teen comedies, intelligent people like yourself, British audiences

Not So Great For: people with a stammer, anyone hoping for more surrealist comedy a la Monty Python

What else should I watch?

Is it hyperbole to compare A Fish Called Wanda to those classic Ealing comedies of the 1940's and 1950's just because director Crichton worked on them? Possibly but the style of the film is perfectly in keeping with the likes of Crichton's earlier films like The Lavender Hill Mob, albeit with much more swearing and a more modern approach to live, death, sex and everything else. My personal favourite remains The Ladykillers, a black comedy about a gang of bank robbers intent on bumping off the landlady of their rented hideout. Not only does it knock spots off the Coen brothers remake of the same name but also features Pink Panther co-stars Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers as well as Alec Guinness in a wonderfully slimy role as the ringleader.

British heist films differ from their American counterparts by often featuring characters relying on wit and cunning rather than explosive set pieces. Examples I enjoyed include Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels as well as The Italian Job and The Return Of The Pink Panther - for my money, the funniest in the whole series. Having said that, the Yanks are occasionally successful in imitating our style of thievery - consider the remake of Ocean's Eleven and The Sting which sees Paul Newman and Robert Redford team up again as a couple of con men.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Benjamin Cox

    Soap Box

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, reelrundown.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://reelrundown.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)