Favorite Movies A-Z: A Fish Called Wanda

Yes. There is, in fact, A Fish Called Wanda. She also plays a more substantial role in the film than one might at first expect. Jamie Lee Curtis also portrays a character called Wanda (not a fish, however); she and Otto (Kevin Kline), Ken (Michael Palin) and George (Tom Georgeson) comprise a gang of jewel thieves. At the start of the film they are successfully pulling off their heist, but as soon as it’s done it begins to go wrong. It turns out that, at least among these thieves, there is not much honor. Wanda and Otto are scheming how to cut the other two out, and only George hiding the take where only he knows where it is and then getting nicked on the strength of an eyewitness prevents them from doing so. Archibald Leach (yes, really; it’s John Cleese) is assigned to defend George.

Archie then gets roped in by Wanda to help her; unwittingly at first, then later wittingly as she wraps him around her little finger. Though Otto fancies himself a genius and Nietzschean super-man, Wanda is the true brains and Machiavel. Otto is much less bright than he imagines, but is a violent psychopath. Ken cares little for most people compared to animals. Archie is hen-pecked by both his wife and adult daughter and ripe for being seduced by Wanda.

The story swirls around an array of plots, schemes, double- and triple-crosses, and other shenanigans related to getting hands on the jewels and either making sure George is acquitted or convicted (depending). Ken’s efforts to eliminate a potential witness, the ramifications of Wanda and Otto pretending to be siblings while she’s been stringing him along romantically, and Archie’s rapid surrender to Wanda showing the merest interest are all delightfully amplified by the excellent comic cast and snappy dialogue.

It’s all a bit unrealistic, of course, like most comedies are. There’s a sense of…what? Heightened realism? It’s what makes the very last moment or two so deeply unsatisfying where that sense is inexplicably abandoned for over-the-top comic absurdity. Thankfully, it is at the end and doesn’t interrupt the flow of an otherwise superb comedy.

It’s not perfect then, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better Anglo-American comedy. Palin and Cleese are acknowledged greats, but Curtis and Kline may not be as familiar to modern audiences for the comedic talents. The whole thing is a bit of a throwback to the screwball comedies of ’30s and ’40s.

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