A Fish Called Wanda is a peculiar film, and not in an altogether good way. Written by John Cleese, you’d expect a bit of lunacy but there’s very little of the order of it that one comes to expect from a Python. Their genius was taking the absolutely bizarre and tuning it to just the right settings; here, it’s a mish-mash of funny sketches around a silly plot that entertains on a superficial level, but is never quite coherent or engaging on an emotional level, certainly not when compared to Cleese’s previous successes.
Cleese also stars, but is not the main star. His character is the barrister Archie Leach, defending George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), a London gangster who has just executed a jewel heist with American siblings Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto (Kevin Kline), and who has just been mysteriously arrested. Turns out, the Wanda and Otto are not siblings but lovers, and have planned to steal the diamonds once George is locked away. But Otto, a magnificent combination of idiot and self-professed intellectual, makes George uncertain, and moves the diamonds. So when he is caught, Wanda and Otto find nothing but an empty safe. Wanda decides to woo Archie in order to get information about the diamonds.
Meanwhile, George’s right-hand-man, the stuttering Ken Pile (Michael Palin) is tasked with bumping off an old lady whose dogs the jewel thieves almost ran over when fleeing the heist, and as such, the only eye-witness. It’s in this subplot that the film stumbles; while both narrative strands are entertaining in their own right, they never gel together like you’d expect. The two Pythons’ characters are very typically British: Archie being the straight man, flustered and polite, more like a Hugh Grant character than Basil Fawlty (though his wife, especially in her first scene, could easily be Sybil in all but appearance); Ken is of that bizarre Python mould, his stutter reminding you of the jailer from Life of Brian (I’m sure he even says “you’re mu-mu-mad!” at one point). Wanda and Otto are, quite possibly deliberately, jarringly different from the Brits. It seems strange to see them operate within the London setting. Archie has more time on screen with both characters, and being a relatively grounded character (though it’s still pushing it) his narrative blends. Ken’s, however, doesn’t blend at all, his scenes trying to kill the old woman seemingly like interludes from another film; all that was missing was Cleese saying “and now for something completely different” to usher the real story back in.
There’s certainly also a battle between the film being simply ridiculous or an actual cartoon. And Otto is certainly a cartoon character; his behaviour, his dialogue, even the way he moves removed even from the same style as Wanda. He eats Ken’s fish to torture him, and is actually steamrolled into cement at the end of the film, only to appear magically on the side of the plane at the end of a film. It’s certainly a brilliant performance, but sometimes you wonder what it’s doing in this film. Archie doesn’t so much have the audience’s sympathy as its pity, at least until the last hurdle when he decides to go after the jewels too.
Another issue is that the film, both in aesthetic and some of its comedy, has not dated well. For a film so often lauded, the only scene that had me laughing out loud was when Wanda is with Archie at his house, with the jealous Otto carefully watching to make sure the tryst doesn’t go as far as sex. Otto ends up in the room with them, unbeknownst to Archie, before he leaves the room, and then his wife and daughter return. Wanda and Otto both hide, and Archie stumbles over explanations about the champagne and the car out front, before Otto steps out and introduces himself as an old friend of Archie’s, who is just as shocked at this stranger’s appearance. The look on his face is completely priceless, and gave me the first genuine fit of laughter in the film. The rest of the film is amusing, but it’s witty and/or ridiculous, rather than raucously funny. I’d say maybe that’s what they were aiming for, but from Cleese? He is all about the witty and ridiculous, but previously they were both gutwrenchingly funny.
In the end, taking the film as a cartoon is the way to best enjoy it. Nobody dies; I was waiting for Otto to do a Wile E Coyote and fall off a cliff, only to be miraculously alive moments later – it wouldn’t have been out of the blue. When Otto is beaten, Ken jubilant but seemingly cornered, with Wanda and Archie flying off to South America, it is a satisfying conclusion to the point where you knew it was going to end that way. But frankly, if Wanda had left herself, Otto been flattened, Archie left with nothing and Ken choking to death on an apple, it wouldn’t have bothered me. These are stupid characters in a stupid plot, and we are only able to laugh at how stupid they are.
And an honourable mention to the brief appearance of Stephen Fry, before he gets knocked out by Otto.