In Mark Kermode’s superb documentary series Secrets of Cinema, he breaks down the nature of the heist. Firstly, there has to be a motive for the job, whether it’s to be rich or correct an injustice. Secondly, it involves a skilled mastermind assembling his specialist team, followed by its meticulous planning. Lastly, it is the execution of the plan to grab the loot and get away Scott free.
But like all heist movies, there is always an element of unpredictable danger. The most common examples involve characters thinking on their feet when a diverting problem arises. But in A Fish Called Wanda, the heist is a short-lived affair. It barely lasts twenty minutes. The hilarity comes in its epic aftermath!
Growing up around the likes of Laurel and Hardy, the Ealing comedies and Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda always felt risqué and edgy, breathing a new lease of life in comedy. Heists usually involve sharp-suited loveable rogues and a cool soundtrack, and yet A Fish Called Wanda excitedly rejects that, living up to its tagline of “a tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood”.
Its loving appeal comes down to its triple operation in heist jokes. Let me explain. The premise is a straightforward affair – a misfit gang featuring George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), Ken Pile (Michael Palin) and Otto West (Kevin Kline) orchestrate and fulfil their plan in stealing some diamonds from Hatton Garden. The second is the escalating discourse and distrust in their selfish, ‘cat and mouse’ game to steal the loot for themselves. The third heist belongs behind the camera where it is immediately identifiable that John Cleese loves working in ensemble groups.
Reminiscent from his Python days, there’s an enjoyable spark of magic in his performance, and as a comedic mastermind, it’s how Cleese assembles his team to see this project through. It’s acquiring the director of The Lavender Hill Mob Charles Crichton, who Cleese knew and worked with at his production company. It’s reuniting with fellow Monty Python actor Michael Palin. Last but not least, it’s the transatlantic effect, obtaining Jamie Lee Curtis (who Cleese specifically wanted after seeing Trading Places) and Kevin Kline.
But thankfully amongst the chaos and its terrific chemistry from the cast, it did eventually steal something from us – our comedic heart and soul.
Part of the reason why it works so delightfully well is its dark humour. However uncomfortable or awkward it is, its humour grants you the permission to laugh at it. With jokes that would sit well in a Python sketch or stage play, it’s the rapid escalation of its catastrophic mishaps for a plan that was originally meant to be simple! It doesn’t have the flair or gloss that comes with American comedies, but it gives it the perfect excuse to indulge in British humour with a high-dose of wit, slapstick and comeuppance with no moral judgement whatsoever.
It’s hard to pick a favourite when a film lovingly enjoys its collective and intertwined spirit. There’s Ken, the animal-loving stutterer who has the unfortunate task (and misfortune) of getting rid of an eyewitness. Cleese as Archie Leech (which is Cary Grant’s real name) happily makes fun of his uptight British stature that gradually loses composure in a frenzied exaggeration. Jamie Lee Curtis evokes the classic memories of a ‘femme fatale’ and her unyielding ability to stay one step ahead of the game. But it’s Kline’s Otto which steals the show in an Oscar-winning performance.
A lot of credit has to be given for Kline’s improvisation, quotable one-liners and the dim-wittedness of his character to go from one crazed extremity to the next. There’s no escape from the obvious Americanised caricatures – big, loud, brash and ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. But the clever brilliance of his performance as Otto is his re-assuring conviction at how intellectually smart he is. It simply acts as a comedic contradiction because every incident he gets himself involved in (that takes advantage of his resourcefulness) only makes the situation worse. If there was ever a moment where Kline shines best, then look no further than the visit of Archie Leech’s home.
Spoiling Archie and Wanda’s growing love affair and his inability to contain a lover’s jealousy, starts a sketch based chain reaction of everyone trying to keep their intentions in check. It’s brilliantly summed up with Otto explaining to Archie’s wife Wendy (Maria Aitken) that he’s a CIA agent in the area, conducting a top-secret debrief of KGB defectors. It’s that or Otto believing that the London Underground is a political movement!
Otto represents the extreme, but the film’s heart and soul belong to Cleese and Curtis for their unconventional on-screen romance. The dynamic is brilliantly and believably nerdy, echoing the difference between Cleese going against the grain as a leading man and Curtis’ clear leading lady credentials. With its romantic and complimentary score by John Du Prez, the match works in its complication. Archie’s dull and miserable life is revitalised by Wanda’s presence. Wanda has her ‘eyes on the prize’ but can’t help but love Archie’s personality and taste for languages.
Kline will always take the notable plaudits, but Jamie Lee Curtis shouldn’t be left out of the discussion. The romance allows her to stretch beyond clichés with a deserved attention and multiple disguises. Whilst it’s always easy to think of Jamie Lee Curtis simply because of her sexualised demeanour (if you think about her scenes in True Lies or Trading Places for example), she equally highlights with Wanda the chameleon-like empowerment of strength that is fierce, colourful and determined. She is a fantastic actress with a ubiquitous presence for comedy and A Fish Called Wanda still remains one of my favourite performances by her.
There’s a reason why A Fish Called Wanda has aged so well. Forget its time capsule views of 80s London or its British stereotypes. It’s the perfect comedy with a perfectly executed script, filled with despicable characters trying their best to outdo each other. It was lightning in a bottle with exceptional circumstances falling into place at the right time. It was a formula they tried to repeat in Fierce Creatures but never quite reached those dizzying heights.
If anything, what Cleese and director Charles Crichton celebrate with A Fish Called Wanda is the art of the ensemble. Getting the pieces together is difficult, but when it works, it’s a masterpiece.