A Fish Called Wanda (1988): The Greatest Modern Comedy?

FISH CALLED WANDA, A (1988)

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There’s nothing more disappointing than revisiting a film that was considered great at its release, only to discover that it’s horribly dated. Many of the films that I loved as a teenager, particularly ones made in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t hold up some twenty or thirty years later. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was one these films I loved, and I was afraid it would suffer the same fate as so many of those other films from that period. I’m happy to report that the film not only holds up, but is still one of the funniest, quirkiest comedies ever made.

Four crooks: Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), her lover Otto West (Kevin Kline), her other lover George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and the stuttering animal lover Ken Pile (Michael Palin), team up to pull off an impressive diamond heist. Successfully completing their mission, the double-crossing begins immediately with George moving the diamonds to a location known only to him and his faithful right hand man, Ken. Masquerading as siblings around George and Ken, Wanda and Otto seek revenge by anonymously reporting George to the authorities. Further complicating matters is Wanda’s plan to use Otto as long as she can to get the diamonds, then turn on him and take the loot for herself. George hires barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) to represent him. Using her skills as a clever seductress, Wanda pretends to be an American law student studying the British legal system to get close to Archie in hopes of finding out where George hid the diamonds. Wanda hilariously juggles her relationships with Otto, Archie and George, and even finds time to use her seductive skills on Ken, momentarily curing him of his stutter.

FISH CALLED WANDA, A (1988)

It’s difficult to single out what makes A Fish Called Wanda one of the great modern comedies. With its impressive principle cast including Monty Python alumni John Cleese and Michael Palin, along with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda combines the zaniness found in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and sex comedies of the 1960s, with a little irreverent Monty Python-style parody thrown in for good measure. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, diving head first into some of the most ridiculous gags. Take the animal-loving, card carrying PETA member Ken, for instance. Ken is tasked with the assassination of a little old lady, the prosecution’s lone witness. He decides to kill her during one of her daily walks with her three little dogs. Rather than just shooting her, Ken devises a series of complicated schemes that would make even the most sinister Bond villain envious. Of course, each time he fails miserably, instead taking out the old lady’s dogs one by one. A grim outcome, and in most situations, wouldn’t be funny. But Ken’s reaction, and his subsequent injuries each time one of the dogs is killed, is so darkly hysterical. And if that weren’t enough, Palin’s Ken lurks behind the trees in a cemetery, bandaged up and sobbing, as each dog receives a proper religious burial. The brilliance of this gag is in Palin playing it straight, with his character genuinely devastated over accidentally killing the dogs, but unflinching over the attempts to kill an innocent old lady.

Then there’s Cleese’s Archie Leach, a man who is in a boring, loveless marriage with his rich wife. It takes only a couple meetings with Wanda for him to fall in love and start an affair. Archie’s infatuation causes him to act erratic and foolish, like staging a break-in at his home to retrieve Wanda’s necklace that his wife mistakenly thought was a gift for her. Or during one of his trysts with Wanda, in the home of one of his colleagues, Archie strips while doing a ridiculous balletic dance. (Cleese has incredible legs. Who knew?) While dancing, Archie recites poems in Italian, Russian and German as Wanda, who has some sort of hilariously bizarre foreign language fetish, writhes around on the floor. Archie is totally uninhibited when he’s around Wanda, allowing Cleese to do some of the quirky physical comedy and clever quips that he perfected during his years with Monty Python and his television show Fawlty Towers (1975-1979).

FISH CALLED WANDA, A (1988)

But it’s Kevin Kline’s Otto, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, that takes A Fish Called Wanda from a standard comedy to one of the funniest of all time. Otto is an unhinged, jealous, oversexed, Nietzsche-reading, Anglophobic maniac who is always packing heat and threatening those who call him “stupid.” He never misses an opportunity to fire a gun, insult an Englishman, or seduce Wanda with his broken Italian. Kline steals every single scene he’s in, from interrupting romantic moments between Archie and Wanda to his sadistic interrogation of Ken.

In addition to the humorous dialogue and sight gags, A Fish Called Wanda is filled with clever and subtle jokes. John Cleese and director Charles Crichton (on what would be his final film) co-wrote the screenplay, and it’s clear they had fun developing the character’s names. For example, Cleese’s character Archie Leach is named after Cary Grant’s birth name. Also, actor Tom Georgeson’s character George Thomason, never fails to get a few laughs.

While it spins out of control in the final minutes (a signature of the classic screwball comedy), the film successfully manages to combine slapstick elements, subtle jokes, romance and dark comedy. Not only does A Fish Called Wanda stand the test of time, but it set the bar for the modern comedy.

Jill Blake

9 Responses A Fish Called Wanda (1988): The Greatest Modern Comedy?
Posted By EricJ : April 22, 2017 2:52 am

There are plenty of other good Kevin Kline roles that spring to mind:
Any of his Shakespeare roles (the ’99 Midsummer Night’s Dream), Soapdish, and even John Cleese said he’d written the role for Kline after seeing his deadpan-cutup as the Pirate King in the 1982 “Pirates of Penzance”.

The movie itself isn’t quite Python, though–It just drips with Cleese’s own neurotic love-hate-but-mostly-hate issues with Americans, mooning over Jamie Lee Curtis one minute, making Kline look like a boorish American-stereotype boob the next, and letting Cleese make his own in-character castigation of them the next. If it’s a Cleese script (like the dinner party in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life”), pretty soon, it’s going to snap and start haranguing Cleese’s own ethnicist pet bugaboo…Those who remember the Fawlty Towers episode with the American tourists know it’s just a matter of When, Not If.

Even worse, it gives all the funny business to all the OTHER funny actors, while Cleese plays it straight–It wants to be an Ealing comedy on speed, but what should be the main Alec Guinness is stuck watching everyone else be funny.
In the end, I found it more sort of….confusing than hilarious.

Posted By artfrankmiami : April 22, 2017 5:05 am

Don’t call me stupid EricJ, but I kind agree with Jill for once.

Haven’t watch it in a long while, but I recall scenes where I couldn’t breathe from laughing.

Instead of Ealing on Speed, maybe just plain Hawksian? Bringing up Baby comes to mind in how out of breathe it all seems.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 22, 2017 9:02 am

I don’t think this film will ever seem dated or stale. It’s the type of comedy that didn’t rely on a specific type of humor that was unique to it’s time. However, whether or not a film seems dated often depends on the viewer, and the stage of life in which they first saw it. There are films from the 30s-60s that I first saw in the 70s and 80s and thought they were great, but now don’t know why I ever liked them. And the films from the 80s and 90s that you find haven’t aged well I might still love just as much as I did then, and vice versa.

Posted By Doug : April 22, 2017 9:57 am

Thank you for this, Jill-I love “A Fish Called Wanda”- I agree with artfrankmiami: It has “Bringing Up Baby” written all through it, and that is high praise from me.
Jamie Lee Curtis from this film could have cured my stutter, or given me one.
Though not in the league of “Wanda”, “Fierce Creatures” does allow the band to get back together and if it isn’t up to the level of Wanda, neither is any other film.
On another post we were discussing when/what we saw growing up in our ‘local markets’.
In 1981 I was in Florida, stuck in a hotel hiding from the heat. Happened upon a TV channel running all of the “Fawlty Towers” over and over and I nearly died laughing-I spent hours helpless on the floor soaking it in.
“A Fish Called Wanda”-it’s time to watch it again, possibly followed by “Fierce Creatures”. Films involving a Billionaire
running a media conglomerate may not seem relevant anymore, but …

Posted By EricJ : April 22, 2017 1:42 pm

Fierce Creatures’ plot, of the zoo trying to sell “dangerous” animals that aren’t, almost seems like Cleese was trying to channel his old Monty Python sketch about the accountant who wanted to be a lion tamer:
“They’re short brown things with long noses, aren’t they?” “No, you’re thinking of an aardvark…”

The only major plot difference between the sketch and the movie story is….the wacky corporate plots of the invading American mega-business billionaire.
Tellin’ ya, he just can’t stay away from it.

Posted By AL : April 22, 2017 7:33 pm

a b s o l u t e l y !

Posted By George : April 22, 2017 9:35 pm

Best comedy of the ’80s: for me, it’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984). It still makes me laugh out loud.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 23, 2017 10:13 am

I’ve watched Spinal Tap three times in the last month.

Posted By Alan : April 25, 2017 2:40 pm

one of my favorites. Shame the so called sequel wasn’t any good

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