A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda. MGM/Prominent Pictures 1988.

Before watching the movie:

Often, one never realizes how little one knows about something until one has to describe it. I know this is a riotously funny movie with John Cleese. Possibly his first big thing after Fawlty Towers. I think I’ve heard something about some character’s fish friends. I did not know until I decided to watch it that it was about three crooks trying to find out where the captured fourth stashed the loot.

I almost called Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline up and comers, but while they’re younger and more current than Cleese and Michael Palin, I think they were actually pretty well established by the late 80s.

After watching the movie:

George, Ken, Wanda, and Otto band together to pull off a jewel heist from a London bank. Wanda and Otto, lovers posing as siblings, double-cross George to take the jewels for themselves, but after George is arrested, they find that George moved the loot from the planned spot, and are forced to try to find out where they’re hidden. While George gives harmless Ken the task of killing the only person who could testify against him (a rather mean little old lady with meaner little dogs), Wanda tries to get information about the case and the jewels by seducing George’s lawyer Archie, combating Otto’s idiotic jealousy the whole way.

This is a very character-driven story, but it doesn’t have as many characters to deal with as it sounds like. Ken is stuck in a subplot for most of the story (and gets the lion’s share of the laughs), George is in prison off camera for most of it, and Archie is mostly a straight man whose world is dissolving thanks to Wanda and Otto entering it. Wanda causes him misery indirectly, Otto directly. So the story really comes down to Wanda and Otto in a semi-antagonistic double act. Otto is a rather unintelligent, insensitive weapons nut who thinks misreading Nietzsche makes him smart (and gets violently offended when his intelligence is questioned), and Wanda is the manipulator quickly losing control of the situation, and herself (especially when men speak foreign languages at her).

Otto and Ken are the buffoons of the film, but the real meat of the humor comes from throwing Archie into awkward situations. Making him cover for why he walked in with champagne for the woman he was entertaining when he thought his wife was out, burgle his own home to get Wanda’s necklace back from his wife, and the consequences for not apologizing to Otto for calling him stupid behind his back. Normally I react badly to being asked to laugh at extremely awkward situations, but the humor here is worth the proxy embarrassment.

Underneath the comedy and machinations, there’s some sort of rumination on the negatives of Englishness and Americanness. Otto demonstrates everything that the English dislike about Americans, and Archie spends the film trying to escape from his stagnant English dignity. No real benefits of either side or alternatives are presented, so I guess it comes down to the deceptively common Demolition Man maxim: “You guys are gonna get a little dirtier, and you other guys are gonna get a lot cleaner. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll figure it out.”

 

Watch this movie: for the fun, and the culture clash.

Don’t watch this movie: for Pythonesque wit.

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