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A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

by on 2011/04/25

 Growing up, certain movies were a staple of my family life. Frequently re-watched videos included Crocodile Dundee, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Midnight Run, Sneakers, and What About Bob? I suppose they were largely inoffensive selections (nothing too adult or violent) balancing the varied expectations we all brought to the TV room.

I re-approached A Fish Called Wanda from that nostalgic point of view. I thought the experience would be like riding a bicycle: familiar, practiced, and rote. I didn’t expect it to demand any undue thought. Instead of simply going through the motions, however, I was surprised by its freshness, its solid production, and a remarkable, poignant depth.

There are two common types of crime flick heists: one in which the plot goes wrong, and the other in which the aftermath goes wrong. Wanda’s a student of the second school. Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Georgeson, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin are cast as the thieves who abscond with a fortune in diamonds, and later come undone through loyalty shifts and treachery.

Their only hope for an eleventh hour escape rests in the efforts of a lawyer, Archie Leach (The Life of Brian’s John Cleese). As the mastermind’s defender, he’s in a position to discover the whereabouts of the diamonds . . . if he can be successfully persuaded to cooperate.

I could easily write Wanda off as a simple, shallow confection, claim it’s hilarious, and make some suitably silly criticism about “Palin’s terrible permanent”, “Curtis’ terrible sunglasses”, and John du Prez’s terribly disappointing score. End of review.

And yet, for a comedy, it’s all a bit less wacky than I remembered. A surprising tension runs throughout and, emotionally, there’s angst as well. I’m not suggesting it’s a dour attempt, but it is comparatively solid for a “lightweight” entertainment.

Kline often receives the lion’s share of acclaim when this title is discussed, and he’s not without entitlement to the praise. Nonetheless, and without slighting his abilities, I’d suggest the recognition comes with the expectation that (when Wanda was made) he was better known for more serious portrayals.

Further, I’d venture Cleese and Palin also merit recognition for demonstrating a similar range. The former often typifies ghoulish authoritarians. Here he’s genuinely sympathetic. The giddiness of Archie first meeting Wanda, and the pathos of his preening for her is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in his body of work.

Palin too is a complex blend, not simply a standard assassin. More than just the vehicle for a stutter, his character demonstrates an admirable respect for animals, and a pained longing in naming his angelfish Wanda, but an interesting roguish vein in relishing Otto being beaten as a child.

Complexity — though not confusion — extends to the production too. Because the characters are well-defined, and nuanced in their performances, the combinations of their various talents prove more than the sum of the parts. Witness the scene where Otto appears behind Archie’s wife, as she herself interrupts a near-tryst with Wanda.

The acting energizes a thoughtful script, and the post-production further supports them. You may automatically assume the heist scene is the editing’s crown jewel, but I was particularly struck by the inter-cutting of parallel scenes: one where Otto seduces Wanda, and another where Archie and his wife go to bed. The comparisons and contrasts — Cleese sniffing a limp sock, Kline huffing a boot to inflation — are as remarkable as amusing.

My rare complaint in this whole affair comes right at the very end. Without giving away any secrets, I must say I was a bit derailed by the descriptive codas, several screens of text explaining the fates of each surviving player. The writing felt of a different humour than the one embodied to then, and characters didn’t need any second guessing.

Up until that point, A Fish Called Wanda is practically textbook perfection. It’s less funny for any gimmicks in its story than for its characters playing against fate. While it remains a modest piece, it’s so pitch perfectly executed, it’s a model of the form.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

108 minutes

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