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Charles Crichton's 'A Fish Called Wanda' Teeters Along the Fine Line of Tastefulness

Stephen Kelly
Michael Palin as Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) [© 1988 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved. / IMDB]

Look beyond the obvious comedic aspects of Charles Crichton's A Fish Called Wanda and you'll find a wonderfully constructed, brilliantly acted film that is at once crime caper, love story, and biting satire of the many differences between Yanks and Brits.

A Fish Called Wanda
Charles Crichton

MGM Video

21 November 2006 (DVD)

What can be said about A Fish Called Wanda that hasn't been said before? The comedy scored a huge international hit with its 1988 theatrical release, nabbing three Oscar nominations (and one win). Critics lauded its crisp direction, irreverent black humor and spot-on casting, and in 2000, A Fish Called Wanda was placed 21st on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 funniest films ever.

The recent DVD release of "The Collector's Edition", the film's third DVD incarnation, offers a chance to again to trot out all the old adjectives, words like "brilliant", "hilarious", and "demented". It's nice to report that after 18 years the accolades hold true. The film about two conniving Americans, three uptight Brits, a jewel heist, seafood, an assassination attempt on an old lady, and one of the funniest strip teases in movie history still stands up as one of cinema's great comedies.

But look beyond the obvious comedic aspects and you'll find a wonderfully constructed, brilliantly acted film that is at once crime caper, love story and a biting satire of the many differences between Yanks and Brits. Throw in an intelligent, decidedly un-PC script, and A Fish Called Wanda becomes one of those rare cinematic moments were everything comes perfectly together.

A film that walks the fine line of tastefulness, A Fish Called Wanda could be offensive to stutterers, animal lovers, homosexuals, the elderly, and Rastafarians if it weren't done with such intelligence and wit. Eighteen years later, this gleeful display of vulgarity makes A Fish Called Wanda seem like a film tailor- made for our equally vulgar, mean spirited times, a worthy predecessor to Borat or South Park.

A Fish Called Wanda stars Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis as Otto and Wanda, two Americans enlisted by Wanda's lover George (Tom Georgeson) to steal a million in jewels. They are assisted by Ken (Michael Palin), an animal lover with an awful stutter. What George doesn't know is that Otto and Wanda are lovers, too.

The heist goes off without a hitch, but in an attempt to grab the loot for herself, Wanda later turns George in to the cops. But it's double-cross on top of double-cross when Wanda and Otto discover that George has moved the jewels to an unknown location. In an effort to find out where the jewels are hidden, Wanda decides to seduce George's barrister, Archie Leach (Cleese).

In the meantime, George calls on Ken to rub out the only witness to the crime: a cranky old lady (Particia Hayes) who's always out walking her dogs. The plot races along until everybody converges on a locker in Heathrow Airport, where the guy gets the girl and the loot, a stutterer is cured, and an American nut job gets his just comeuppance.

While the film stars two Monty Python alums, it bears little resemblance to the Python films or TV series, which were justifiably overblown and silly. With its black humor, quirky attention to detail and crisp rhythm, A Fish Called Wanda more closely resembles great comedies of Britain's Ealing Studios like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1951), whose themes of everyday people pushed to the edge of absurdity is at this film's black heart.

Which should come as no surprise, as A Fish Called Wanda is directed with terse economy by Ealing veteran Charles Crichton, who has long flavored substance over flash, telling a story that races along with precision timing. True to his economical style, Crichton eschews quick reaction shots in favor of long, sustained takes. It features a number of scenes where the camera does not move or cut for 15-to-20 seconds, allowing the viewer, particularly on repeated viewings, to fully appreciate the actor's performances and the nuances of Cleese's clever script.

Which, in this case, takes ample opportunity to explore the gulf between the Yanks and the Brits, giving something for both sides of the pond to snicker at. For this reviewer, it's this hilarious take on Anglo/American relations that makes A Fish Called Wanda so much fun, and what distances it from other mid-'80s "fish-out-of-water" films like Eddie Murphy's Coming To America (1988) or Crocodile Dundee (1986), amiable films in which the character's unique cultural habits, while at first strange and foreign, soon become endearing.

A Fish Called Wanda takes the opposite approach. Wanda and Otto are the ugliest kind of Americans: rude, profane, and conniving, and they treat everyone with contempt. "I love robbing the British," Otto gloats after the heist. "They're so polite." Wanda, while the brains of the operation, seems incapable of telling the truth. Kick in the fact that Otto is, as Leach's wife calls him, "irretrievably stupid", and it's a serious case of Yankee go home.

Otto is a rich comic creation and Kline has never been better. Otto lives the worst kind of delusion: a supremely stupid man who fancies himself intelligent. But quoting Nietzsche and menu-style Italian does not intelligent make, and in one scene Wanda is forced to remind him of how stupid he really is. "Calling you stupid is an insult to stupid people," she says before reminding him that the Gettysburg Address is not where Lincoln lived.

The British don't get off much easier. The men are seen as prim, proper, and repressed, described by Cleese in his commentary track as the type of people whose "main goal in life is to get safely into your grave without ever having been seriously embarrassed." Archie in particular, is dominated by the women in his life, from his shrewish wife and pampered daughter straight through to the conniving Wanda. Lonely and submissive, he's the perfect foil for a gal with a plan.

It's interesting, then, to see the stereotypes laid bare: the Americans are seen as obnoxious, stupid, and quite possibly psychotic, while the Brits are presented as wimpy, exceedingly polite, and ineffectual. Only the snake-like George, the mastermind of the heist, shows any toughness or balls. Yet, even he's no match for the manipulations of the crafty Americans.

This "us vs. them" sentiment boils just under the script's surface and the "hands across the water" often seemed poised squarely on the throat. Both sides take potshots at each other. "Oh, you British think you're so superior," Otto sneers when Archie's priggish wife (Maria Aitken) dares to call him stupid, or when Archie taunts Otto by bringing up Vietnam: "They kicked your ass real good!"

It's all good-natured fun, but at a time when Britain is the US's closest ally in the a questionable war, it's interesting to see that their past two centuries as strange bedfellows hasn't put to rest the stereotypes, real or perceived, that still exist between the two countries. Unfortunately, Cleese's rather dry commentary sheds little light on the thought process behind his acidic script and focuses more on filmmaking technique. It would have been interesting to hear what this distinctly British actor/writer was thinking during the writing process.

The film's third DVD outing doesn't offer much new bonus material from 2005's "Deluxe Edition". Both packages feature insightful commentary from Cleese, an excellent making-of doc called "Something Fishy", deleted and alternate scenes, theatrical trailers and photo galleries. What's new with the "Collector's Edition" is a nifty "Pop-up Video"-style trivia track that offers fun info on the film.


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