A Fish Called Wanda is held up as a comedy classic—but it’s not quite the classic the film’s reputation might lead you to believe. It is, however, the last time John Cleese was funny (before he married half the blondes of America, resulting in spending the last 30 years doing small roles in crap American films for obscene amounts of money for alimony payments.) The film’s laughs mostly come from the interplay of the two American actors, Kevin Kline (who won an Oscar for his performance) and Jamie Lee Curtis.
The film is a very silly farce in a Python-meets-Ealing style. It was written by Cleese and directed by Ealing comedy veteran Charles Crichton—while Cleese got a co-director credit, that was more to appease the Hollywood funders of the film, who either didn’t know who Crichton was or thought he wasn’t up to the job due to being ageist asswipes! Kline and Curtis play some jewel thieves who team up with Michael Palin’s stuttering, animal-loving hitman and a completely uninteresting London gangster who nobody remembers from the film. Cleese plays a silly barrister, a weakling who gets entangled with the two Americans.
Kevin Kline’s performance as the incredibly dumb American Otto West is what holds the film together. It’s almost as if Cleese came up with the character as a sketch and wrote the entire film around it, it’s such a well-rounded characterisation. He claims to be a Nietzsche-loving Buddhist, but in reality he doesn’t understand anything from either philosophy or Buddhism. Otto West (what a great name, by the way) is also a total psychopath who eats live fishes in an iconic scene. The scene in question actually caused somebody to die from laughter—while it’s funny, it’s not THAT funny!
Nobody cares about anybody else in the cast, except maybe an incredibly funny cameo featuring a younger and thinner Stephen Fry. Jamie Lee Curtis does her best comedic femme fatale. This was a real boost in her career, as even at this point was struggling to shred the Scream Queen image she had from her early work. As a quick side note, Cleese’s arch nemesis and former Python co-worker Terry Gilliam has said he probably should’ve cast her as the love interest in his masterpiece (and the greatest film ever made) Brazil.
Palin is, shockingly, the weakest link in the film with his depiction of somebody with a severe stutter (his father had one). The performance borders on the offensive, and was widely criticised by some people with stammers. Palin obviously never meant to be overtly offensive, but would soon start up The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children as a response to the role’s negative reception. Cleese is his usual middle-aged tosser doing and saying very silly things. There is a love-interest angle to the film, which was added to please the American audiences: Cleese was a desperate man at this point, and would do anything to be liked in the US, so he was the studio’s little bitch during the production. This something Gilliam has refused to do, to his credit, although he has ended up paying for it in his career.
A Fish Called Wanda ended up being a massive critical and box-office success and an even a bigger home-video seller. It has dated a lot over the last 30 years, especially its horrendous ’80s score and of course the clothes and hair. The film certainly reaches the Kermode laugh count of 6, and it has two standout scenes: the absolutely absurd sex scene between Kline and Curtis, and the scene where Kline eats the fish and stuffs the chips up Palin’s nose. It’s not quite the comedy masterpiece many have claimed however, and eventually runs out of steam near the end.
The disc boosts a new 4K restoration, which Arrow have put together. Cleese supplies a commentary track, and all the extras from the previous Blu-ray are carried over, which includes docs, deleted scenes and more. The two new additions are an appreciation by the BFI’s Vic Pratt, and interviews with some crew members. The first pressing includes a booklet by Sophie Monks Kaufman.