A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

I heard a lot about this movie prior to watching it for the first time a few years ago, and certainly ran across the title enough times browsing my father’s video collection. Yet I never looked very far into it, until I discovered it was the work of Python alumni. I think, in fact, it was referenced in something related to the Pythons themselves, showing clips of a maddened, eyepatched Michael Palin, and an embarassed and possibly naked John Cleese. Perhaps, for this reason, I did not get quite what I was looking for out of it, as inevitably seems to be the case with these boys.

Georges Thomason (Tom Georgeson) is a thief working with lover Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has recently brought on her brother Otto (Kevin Kline) as a weapons man, all in the flat that seems most likely owned by co-conspirator Ken Pile (Michael Palin). We learn that Georges is the brains of the operation, planning the whole thing, Wanda is the manipulator who sets things in motion, because she is actually lover to Otto (who isn’t her brother at all), Otto is purely the brawn (despite his beliefs to the contrary) and Ken is the heart, if you will, “Fight Cruelty to Animals” posters littering the flat, as well as a tank of fish that he has named and talks to affectionately. They steal a pile of diamonds, then backstabbing and double crossing begin, and soon barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese, who scripted and co-wrote the film, as well as taking a co-directorial credit that he says was in name only–oh, and that’s Cary Grant’s real name, of course, which is why I kept thinking it sounded awfully familiar) is drawn into the mess, defending Georges and beginning a love affair with Wanda. Otto and Wanda are happily betraying Georges, who sends Ken out to kill the one witness who can identify him, an old woman named Mrs. Coady (Patricia Hayes) who has three yapping dogs.

If you go into this expecting a strange, absurdist Python sense of humour, you are going to be sorely disappointed (as I was). It isn’t that at all, and is far more a straightforward comedy. I hear terms like “perfect” and the like bandied about related to this film, but I think that’s a great stretch. It’s not a bad or mediocre film by any means, but it isn’t anything groundbreaking either. It is a bit on the dark side of humour (originally intended to be even darker, which surprises me little when it comes to Cleese) but not overly so–supposedly in part, if not largely, because of test audiences. I will note that, at least from my imagination, this was not a bad choice, for once. A lot of the removed and changed scenes related to more realistic animal violence and a more cynical ending. While there’s, for reasons beyond me, still some idiot movement about the supposedly “inevitable” happy or “neatly tied up” endings (despite the constantly increasing number o fcynical, ambiguous endings floating around), I’m not of that mind. There are only so many endings one can use and still have an ending, and I’m not opposed to any on principle, and in fact just want them to fit with the rest of the movie. As Fish was filmed, it was a lighter comedy, for all of its spikes of darkness or cynicism. The ending it has fits.

What has bothered me, though, is a strange competing tension between the British and American actors within the film. They almost seem to be coming from different worlds (surprise, surprise! I know!) but in a way that seems to rip and tear at the fabric of the film for me, as if it’s trying terribly hard to be a (good) American comedy or a (good) British comedy. I mean neither as disparaging, as both are handled with style, but it is sort of disorienting to me. However, it’s worth noting that it is an absolute testament to the skill of those involved–director Charles Crichton, actors Kline, Cleese, Palin and Curtis–that it does not tear itself in half. It holds together in spite of this for me, something I don’t know that anyone else I’ve ever spoken to feels of it. It leads to a mild disappointment because its sense of humour comes off as nothing new, but the disappointment remains mild because the delivery, timing, direction and editing all put it together to remain legitimately funny–or at least amusing. Actually, it’s very difficult for me to state my opinion. Something feels wrong, but when I look at it, there isn’t anything wrong, meaning I’m more than likely still just annoyed that it wasn’t more Python-esque material, but not too annoyed because it works anyway as what it is.

Bizarre.

Amusing bits: Stephen Fry has a brief cameo as a man in an airport with about two lines, and strangely John Du Prez’ score kept making me think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at one point or another, which is probably not surprising since, as I surmised, he wrote that score as well, and only about a year or so later. But, still. It’s weird to watch Kevin Kline and Michael Palin run around and think of Henson Studios turtle-people at the same time.

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