VOD film review: A Fish Called Wanda
James R | On 23, Feb 2014
Director: Charles Crichton
Cast: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis
Watch A Fish Called Wanda online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / MGM on Amazon / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
A quick glance at this year’s Oscar nominees and the odds for the winners reminds us yet again how hard it is for a funny man (or woman) to bring home the gold. Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook, but David O’Russell’s ensemble piece was part-comedy, part-drama, as much a serious exploration of Themes and Issues as it was a dance movie. Kevin Spacey picked up Best Actor in 1999 for American Beauty, but again, spent as much time agonising over his midlife crisis as he did delivering acerbic one-liners. All of which only goes to show how special A Fish Called Wanda is: Charles Crichton’s film about a diamond heist picked up a Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Kline in 1988. It’s not hard to see why.
The plot follows the fallout of the raid, as mob boss George goes on trial while his lover, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), tries to work out where he put the goods. Loyal, stammering Ken (Michael Palin) won’t tell her, but she gets more than enough back-up from her brother, Otto. That’s Kline.
Bursting onto the screen, he announces his arrival by lobbing a knife at a seal’s head while grinning like an idiot. That’s because he is one: a man who reads Nietzsche for a hobby, he thinks that the central message of Buddhism is “every man for himself” and that the London Underground is a political movement. The gags are whip-smart from John Cleese, whose script knows how to trade one-liners as well as it does set up physical set pieces. There are dated touches, from George’s defence lawyer Archie Leech (Cleese) – whom Wanda seduces to find out the location of the loot – putting up with his dull trophy wife to the dash through airport security towards the end, but it feels intentional thanks to the appointment of Ealing Comedy vet Crichton at the helm, who ratchets up the old-fashioned, knockabout pace like a Titfield Thunderbolt gathering steam.
On board, Michael Palin has a reunion of sorts with his fellow Monty Python, stuttering his way through a note perfect supporting role – his face as he accidentally bumps off a pensioner’s dogs is priceless – but the star of the show is surely Kline. Waving swords about, driving on the wrong side of the road and forever lecturing British people about the failings of their country, it’s hard to tell where Cleese’s concise insults end and his free-wheeling improvisation begins; a masterclass in splitting sides. Even his moustache is hilarious. As he pretends to speak Italian while having sex – “Benito Mussolini!” – the laughter count just keeps rising.
There are no serious moments, no issues to tackle, no themes to discuss: this is screwball farce, pure and simple. The romance between Wanda and Archie is likeable enough and the cast, with their easygoing chemistry, make the gags feel character-driven, but they’re always aiming for your funny bone more than your heart. The result is something that feels closer to Some Like It Hot than Silver Linings Playbook, an unashamedly high quality production that isn’t afraid to simply go for the giggles – no matter how silly things get.
If it were being made now, A Fish Called Wanda could easily stretch to over two hours, but it clocks in at a clipped 100 odd minutes. It’s a British classic, arguably one of the funniest movies ever made, and despite being 26 years ago, shows no sign of getting old around the gills.
Back in 1988, it cemented Kevin Kline as a performer worth watching, earning him a shiny golden prize – not for his turn opposite Meryl Streep in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice (for which he was nominated Most Oustanding Newcomer at the BAFTAs), but for his mozarella-shouting, knife-throwing, dangerous-driving imbecile. As the dramatic heavyweights line up for this year’s Oscars, you wonder why they don’t give the gong to funny men (or women) more often. As for A Fish Called Wanda, the surprise isn’t that the film won an Oscar for Kline’s comedy performance: the surprise is that it didn’t win more.
A Fish Called Wanda is available on BBC iPlayer until 5th July 2021. It is also available to watch online on MGM on Amazon, as part of a £4.49 monthly subscription.