A FISH CALLED WANDA had audiences choking on their popcorn (or guppies) in 1988, racking laughs as the 12th most popular picture in the States, 7th worldwide. Comedies reigned in ’88, with the genre claiming seven of the top 10 hits. Directed by English comedy veteran Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob), this caper lark drew the 77-year-old Crichton a career capping Oscar nomination for his last film. The wicked, unsparingly caustic script written by star John Cleese was likewise nominated and Kevin Kline handily aced an Academy mantlepiece as Best Supporting Actor. All elements jell in, as the ad tagline had it, “A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood.” *
London. After the leader of a diamond heist is nabbed, his confederates engage in trying to deceive, seduce, threaten or otherwise outwit each other for the spoils. Seduction comes from ‘Wanda’ (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose cyclonic sex appeal spins mortal men like frisbees. ‘Outwit’ would not seem too much of a stretch regarding dim and demented weapons expert and Nietzsche fan ‘Otto’ (Kline), who delights in tormenting animal lover ‘Ken’ (Michael Palin) over his stuttering. Wanda, practicing 4-way foreplay, also uses her gifts to ensnare seemingly staid defense barrister ‘Archie Leach’ (Cleese), ripe for rescue from his petrified marriage.
Crichton and the others helped with the script, Cleese assisted with the direction. The caper aspect moves sleekly, aided by John Du Prez nervy music score. The four inspired leads were never better, carrying off the ribald ribbing, wild slapstick and merciless skewering of American and British stereotypes with electric energy, delicious venom and perfect timing. Kline is outrageous and hilarious, Cleese gallant and ingratiating, Curtis confident and tantalizing, Palin a genie volcano poised to erupt. No holds are barred, and it skirts perilously close to the edge of discomfort, but the writing, directing and acting pull off a brazen comic coup.
Produced for $8,000,000, that figure flicked aside by a US gross of $62,500,000, part of the global take of $188,597,000. With Tom Georgeson (as ‘Georges Thomason’, heistmaster), Maria Aitken (bitingly funny as ‘Wendy’, Archie’s venom-dispensing wife), Patricia Hayes (old lady with the ill-fated pooches), Cynthia Cleese (John’s daughter; “Do shut-up, Portia!”), Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Fry. 108 minutes.
* Nine years later Cleese, Kline, Curtis and Palin reunited for the unrelated Fierce Creatures but the magic didn’t repeat and it was a critical and box-office thud. It has some smiles and chuckles, but giggles and knee-slappers sleep with Wanda.
“Revenge!” Though some may quibble over the taste quotient regarding Palin’s character’s prodigiously exaggerated stuttering, take the sting away noting that in 1993 he lent his name to the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering. His father suffered from the condition. With the decades of good work done by the center, kindly ‘Ken’ got added post-squish “Revenge!” on obnoxious Otto.
Cleese’s ‘Archie Leach’ was the writer-actor honoring Cary Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach. Unreel-life played a bizarre black comedy joke when a Danish man, audiologist Ole Bentzen, laughed so hard watching the movie in a theater he died of a heart attack.
Palin: “That was an extraordinary and dreadful accident. He must have laughed very hard indeed. Quite a tribute.”
Cleese: “Yes, I think it is the ultimate compliment. He started laughing after about 15 minutes in, and literally never stopped. We tried to contact his widow, because we wondered about using this in the publicity. I think we decided it was in too bad taste. I mean, we all have to go. And I think laughing yourself to death is a nice way to do it.”