Released in July of 1988, 35 years ago this week, director Charles Crichton‘s A Fish Called Wandahad a British setting, including one-third of Monty Python, although it also boasted two American movie stars. The two sensibilities ended up meshing perfectly, with almost everyone involved — but especially Kevin Kline — doing some of their best work.
At first, the film looks like a heist movie, with a group of criminals planning a jewel heist, including stuttering animal enthusiast Ken (Michael Palin), and Americans Otto (Kline) and Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) posing as siblings when they are actually lovers. Once the diamonds they stole go missing, Wanda decides to seduce their accomplice’s lawyer (John Cleese, who also wrote the screenplay).
It’s a consistently funny movie, but the thing that makes it go the most is Kline’s performance as Otto West, one of the great assholes of cinematic history. He’s obnoxious and pretentious, contemptuous of his British hosts, and really, really hates being called stupid, even though — as Curtis points out to him in the movie’s most famous monologue — he actually is. (“The central message of Buddhism is not every man for himself.”)
Also, Otto and Wanda’s schemes hinge on her frequently seducing other men, but Otto is so thin-skinned that he can’t help but get jealous every time.
The film’s other great joke is that Palin’s character loves animals, but they keep coming to terrible ends right in front of him, including all the dogs belonging to an elderly female witness (and eventually, the witness herself). And in the film’s other most famous scene, Otto tries to torture him into telling him the location of the diamonds, by eating his fish, one by one:
Jonah Hill, in The Wolf of Wall Street, only ate one goldfish…
But luckily for Ken, he gets his revenge. Very slow revenge…
So many comedies, especially these days, just decide to stop being funny in the third act, while letting the plot and lessons take over. Not A Fish Called Wanda; some of its funniest moments are near the end.
Kline won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, which remains the best of his career, and the film was also nominated for directing and writing, winning neither. A Fish Called Wanda was not nominated for Best Picture, in the year of Rain Man, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Working Girl, and The Accidental Tourist.
Probably the best of all those films, A Fish Called Wanda is streaming on Paramount+ and Showtime.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.