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  Fish Called Wanda, A Piscine About
Year: 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
Stars: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Maria Aitken, Tom Georgeson, Patricia Hayes, Geoffrey Palmer, Cynthia Cleese, Mark Elwes, Neville Phillips, Peter Jonfield, Ken Campbell, Michael Percival, Jeremy Child, Stephen Fry, John Bird
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 3 votes)
Review: It seemed like the perfect plan. Four criminals have settled on robbing the jewels from a London bank, and have it all mapped out to the tiniest detail, but there are tensions within the gang which could see the whole affair fall apart. For a start, not all of them are being honest with each other, as Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is pretending to be the sister of Otto (Kevin Kline), who is actually her lover, but the leader of the criminals, Thomason (Tom Georgeson) thinks she's in love with him. Then there's poor, stuttering, animal loving Ken (Michael Palin), owner of a tankful of fish...

But there's a missing piece to this, and he would be Archie Leach - no, not Cary Grant, but John Cleese, the brains behind A Fish Called Wanda, one of the most successful British big screen comedies of the eighties, not that there was an enormous amount of competition for that accolade, with apologies to fans of Water and The Boys in Blue. Cleese coaxed director of Ealing classics Charles Crichton out of retirement for one last job, and wrote the script himself, with results he believed were the very best he ever came up with. Certainly there were a whole bunch of audiences who agreed up to a point.

But there were also a number who didn't quite see the joke. It may seem surprising, but there are those who sit through this stony faced, and for a film delineated to Cleese's by then exacting rules of comedy it left many cold as far as generating those laughs went. Perhaps it was the rules which prevented it from feeling truly spontaneous, as the erstwhile Basil Fawlty had by this stage in his career suffered a crisis of confidence in what was funny, and had taken to analysing his craft to minute detail, as if he could not quite trust himself in his judgement of jokes. No wonder he liked Wanda so much, as it must have felt like a validation of all his hopes for his work.

As with the Ealing comedies of old, a simple concept was allowed to spiral off in humorous directions, so what appears a simple scheme to liberate the diamonds comes a cropper when the essential double dealing nature of the gang sabotages what might have been successful. Kline won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance here, and in the dim but pretentious Otto he found a fine comic opportunity, but really all the main cast rose to the occasion, perfectly aware of what was required of them to keep things going. It's a good thing too, as the plot tended to meander, treading water for long stretches so we could be regaled with more gags.

Palin got the broadest bad taste business to take care of, as his stammerer is recruited by Thomason, who has been arrested, to kill the only witness likely to put him away, who happens to be a little old lady (Patricia Hayes) and the owner of three yappy little dogs. You can see where that is going as he ends up snuffing out the pooches by mistake, but that all fed into the overriding anti-English theme as Cleese appeared to be working out some kind of nationality-based inferiority complex, putting the lion's share of critical dialogue into American Kline's mouth while ensuring the victims of their own manners and social constrictions that he saw Brits labouring under was well to the fore in both Ken and Archie, the barrister Cleese played. Archie is dragged into this by Wanda who wants to manipulate him, something she does very well - Curtis was rarely so self-possessed - and if you're patient it all draws to a satisfying ending. But hilarious? Amusing, yes, but not much more. Music by John Du Prez.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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