In London, four very different people team up to commit armed robbery, then try to doublecross each other for the loot.
One of the important steps in becoming a film reviewer is defining your own aesthetic. For example, while I often find physical humor to be pretty boring, I think absurdity is hilarious. I won’t laugh at a car careening into a case of watermelons, but I will laugh inexplicably if someone tries to jump off a rooftop while riding an ostrich. (That’s a “Leonard: Part 6” reference.) “A Fish Called Wanda” is a well-respected classic and I’ve watched it twice this week but it’s not my favorite comedy even though moments made me smile. The type of humor evoked in the film is that a group of unusual characters do strange things to disrupt the life of another unusual person. Some people, however, find “A Fish Called Wanda” hilarious and you might be one of these people. For example, in 1989, Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen laughed so hard at the film that his heart rate rose to 250-500 beats per minute and resulted in a fatal heart attack. I admire “A Fish Called Wanda,” but it’s not funny enough to make me die laughing.
I also respect the characters in the film. They’re a group of robbers (including Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline) who form up to steal diamonds. Most characters in comedies are particularly hollow. Jokes don’t fit into the character or how they operate and view the world. The characters in “A Fish Called Wanda” are very well drawn and distinct. Ken Pile (Michael Palin) is a character who is desperately in love with his tropical fish including one fish named Wanda. Otto West (Kevin Kline) ultimately eats the fish to get Pile to talk. (West also stuffs french fries up Pile’s nose and that’s the sequence that killed Bentzen.) I didn’t find any of the characters remarkably compelling but I appreciated their level of intelligence and wit. That’s a funny compliment because so much of the film focuses on the carnal elements of human beings. A great deal of the film is dedicated to showing Wanda Gerschwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) seduce the married and uptight Archie Leach (John Cleese).
I also really enjoyed the wicked tone of the film, which is a distinctive product of the English pen and the type of tone that can only live removed from Hollywood. You could even call the film the logical extension of Monty Python with Cleese being maybe the most famous member of the Python troupe. The film also makes the only truly repulsive characters, the ones played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, American. While “A Fish Called Wanda” has some surrealness from Monty Python and a premise that sounds like it might have been produced by Ealing Studios, the film takes a modern approach to the story.
I made that comparison to the film before I learned that Charles Crichton directed the film. Crichton is one of the best-remembered directors from Ealing Studios and is best known for his work on the film, “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Crichton likes comedies of manners as well the sharp and bite of British comedies.
I enjoyed “A Fish Called Wanda” and it’s a film that I meant to watch for many years, but at the end of the day, it’s a film that I greatly admire but sadly fails to make my all-time best comedy list. If you like comedies, though, this is a must-see. You may very well realize that you like English humor and this might become one of your favorite comedies.
Now available on a Special Edition Blu-ray from Arrow Video