A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton)

A Fish Called Wanda introduces each of its main characters during the opening titles, cutting from one actor to another, starting with screenwriter John Cleese. He’s a barrister. Then it’s Jamie Lee Curtis; she’s a vivacious American. Then Kevin Kline is a deadly but dim-witted American. Finally, Michael Palin. He loves animals, including his fish (Wanda is named after a fish, but also Curtis’s character, who the fish is presumably named after).

Curtis, Kline, and Palin are pulling a jewel heist. Tom Georgeson is the mastermind. Curtis is the brainy moll, Kline’s the muscle, and Palin’s the utility man. Curtis and Georgeson are shacked up, but she’s really with Kline; to cover in front of Georgeson and Palin, Curtis and Kline pretend to be siblings. It gets some raised eyebrows until Kline—in one of the only intelligent things he does in the movie, but since it’s being shitty, he can figure it out—diverts attention in a very funny subplot.

Kline’s the breakout performance in the film. He’s got a mix of physical and verbal comedy, and he’s always better. It’s an exceptional, singular performance. Though, arguably, that description fits all four leads. But Kline gets the most laughs. He does dangerous and absurd in perfect balance.

When someone turns on the crew after the heist, Georgeson gets arrested. He’s moved the jewels, so when everyone else goes looking, they come up empty-handed. Worse, the prosecutors are offering a deal, provided Georgeson turns over the jewels and maybe his partners.

Curtis gets the idea to cozy up to his new barrister, Cleese, in hopes of getting some privileged information. Curtis flirting with Cleese drives Kline up a further wall, which just gets worse and worse for Cleese (and Curtis).

While Curtis and Kline are working Cleese for their own benefit, Palin’s trying to keep on mission; he just needs to take out a witness against Georgeson. A mean little old lady (a delightful Patricia Hayes) with three mean dogs. Except Palin can’t seem to find a way to kill the old lady without taking out her dogs, causing him quite the moral quandary.

It doesn’t help Kline’s annoying him most of the time. Palin’s character has a stutter, which Kline teases him about (first out of carelessness, then out of malice), and the assassination order just gives him more ammunition. Kline doesn’t think Palin can do it and tries to psych him out.

Meanwhile, Cleese is a successful barrister in a disagreeable marriage to Maria Aitken. His success doesn’t impress her (he married into money, which comes up later), and he doesn’t have any interest in her society goings on. They’ve got a daughter (Cynthia Cleese), who’s often around the house, but doesn’t really play in. She’s funny and good; she’s just very supporting.

Aitken’s awesome as Cleese’s wife, who’s got to be in the “unreasonable spouse” position, so Cleese’s flirtation with Curtis isn’t off-putting. Though Wanda initially plays Cleese as a rube, he ends up the protagonist, and he gets there through his infatuation with Curtis. He thinks she’s just an overeager American legal student who happens to be very sexy; she speaks his language and is interested in what he’s got to say.

Wanda is a heist comedy, not a heist spoof or noir spoof. The film doesn’t play around with twists and reveals in the third act. Instead, it establishes the characters pretty quickly in the first and second acts—with Cleese’s protagonist role being the last bit of establishing—and then the second act is all about Kline screwing up Curtis’s plans, complicating things with Cleese, and consequently his home life. Often hilariously. Maybe always hilariously.

Then Palin’s off mostly on his own, checking in with Curtis and Kline occasionally.

It’s an incredibly well-constructed plot. However, there’s nothing not incredible about Wanda. The dialogue’s not just fast and funny; Cleese’s script ties the character development to it. Curtis gives away insight into the femme behind the fatale as she has to react to unexpected, complicated situations. It’s obvious what all the men see in Curtis and what she sees in most of them, but when she and Cleese’s chemistry starts driving their scenes—mutually—instead of the plot machinations, she’s got to make it believable.

Phenomenal work from Curtis. She’s so good. The script gives her a Basil Fawlty rant at one point, and the way she channels it just informs her and Cleese’s chemistry; he’s almost entirely rant-free. Well, loud rant-free. Cleese isn’t just in an expired marriage; he’s also sick of being British. He’s done it all his life, and it sure looks like Americans have more fun.

Cleese is great. As a writer, he knows how to share. He and Kline have some great scenes together, and then there’s a wonderful one with Palin.

And Palin’s excellent, too, of course. For most of Wanda, he’s just in his own little movie amid the bigger story. When they bring him in it, it’s always great.

The film’s technicals are outstanding too. Crichton’s direction is breezy but never hurried. He knows how to showcase the actors. Excellent photography from Alan Hume and a fun score from John Du Prez.

And Hazel Pethig’s costumes are essential, particularly for Curtis and Kline.

A Fish Called Wanda is a masterpiece of comedy. Peerless comedy acting from Kline, Curtis, Cleese, and Palin, and Cleese’s script is superlative. Wanda’s wonderful.

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