A Fish Called Wanda

Released:  1988

Cast:  John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Kline)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Director (Charles Crichton), Best Original Screenplay (John Cleese, Charles Crichton)

SUMMARY:  In London, thief George Thomason and his partner Ken Pile (Michael Palin) arrange to steal a large cache of jewels, but they need two other people.  They decide on Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), an experienced con artist, and “weapons man” Otto West (Kevin Kline).  Wanda and Otto are a couple, but they pretend to be siblings so that Wanda can seduce the other two as needed.  This frequently grates on the loud, ignorant Otto, who tends to abandon the pretense if he feels that Wanda has crossed the line.  The four manage to successfully steal the diamonds, but are seen during their escape by an old lady.  As planned, the group hides the diamonds in a safe in a nondescript workshop, but after the others leave, George moves the diamonds.  Wanda and Otto alert the police to George’s participation in the heist, then head back to the workshop to take the diamonds for themselves.  As Otto opens the safe Wanda prepares to hit him over the head — but the safe is empty.  The two realize that George is the culprit, and that they still need him.  Both go the jail to see George, but Wanda decides instead to seduce George’s lawyer.  She believes that this man, Archie Leach (John  Cleese), will be able to convince George to plead guilty, and reveal the location of the diamonds in order to receive a lighter sentence.  Archie is unhappily married to a domineering woman, and quickly falls for Wanda.  However, he resists her attempts to learn information about the case.  Otto does not like this plan, and frequently follows Wanda when she goes to meet Archie.  This interference creates unusual (and hilarious) situations, particularly as Wanda and Otto continue to use the sibling excuse.  Wanda starts to have real feelings for Archie, but tells him that she would only marry a rich man (which Archie is not).  After several disastrous attempts to be together, Archie calls off the affair.

As this is happening, George has been conspiring with Ken to get the charges against him dropped.  Since there is only one witness, George tells Ken to kill her.  This woman, Mrs. Coady, is the elderly woman who was walking her three dogs as the group left the scene of the heist.  Ken agrees to kill the woman, but his repeated attempts only succeed in killing off her dogs one at a time.  Luckily for him, after the last dog dies Mrs. Coady suffers a fatal heart attack.  Otto and Wanda realize that George will now be released from prison, which will interfere with their plans, so when she is called as a witness, Wanda blames the entire crime on George.  Archie forgets himself and calls Wanda “darling”, which causes George (who still thinks he is in a relationship with Wanda) to fly into a rage and attack.  In addition, Archie’s wife decides that he must have been having an affair, and announces that she wants a divorce.  Archie then abruptly decides to take the diamonds himself and flee.  He learns that Ken knows where the loot is; on the way to Ken’s apartment, he picks up Wanda.  Archie tells her of his plan, and Wanda reveals that she has the key to unlock the new location of the diamonds (a safe deposit box at a hotel near Heathrow Airport).  At the same time as all of this is happening in court, Otto has cornered Ken in his apartment and demanded to know the location of the diamonds.  When Ken refuses to tell, Otto eats his prized fish one by one, saving the one named Wanda for last.  Ken ultimately does reveal the location, to both Otto and Archie.  All four (Archie, Wanda, Ken and Otto) rush to the hotel, where Otto and Wanda claim the diamonds and try to board a plane; however, Wanda locks Otto in a closet at the first opportunity.  When he gets out, he is confronted by Archie, who distracts Otto by taunting him about his lack of intelligence.  Just then, Ken appears on a steamroller, intent on avenging the deaths of his fish.  Otto discovers that he is standing in partially-dried cement, and is subsequently run over.  Archie and Wanda get on a plane to South America, but Otto suddenly reappears and latches on to the outside of the plane; when it starts to taxi, he is blown off.  An epilogue states that Archie and Wanda moved to Rio, had 17 children and started a leper colony; Ken became Master of Ceremonies at Sea World in London, and Otto became the Minister of Justice in South Africa.

MY TAKE:  This is a little like the old screwball comedies of the 1930s, because the various characters are continually getting themselves into scrapes and trying to outsmart each other.  The only one who is very good at this is Wanda, who has all of the men on a string; however, her plans are constantly interrupted by the inept Otto, who thinks he’s some kind of genius (in reality, he’s an idiot).  Wanda is forced into some pretty creative fixes, and ultimately manages to come out on top.  Frankly, I’m surprised she waited until the end to knock Otto upside the head and lock him in a closet.  The man is a complete moron, though he is good for comedic value.  It’s actually pretty amazing that four people who have so little trust in each other managed to pull off such a high-value robbery.  It is a funny movie — I particularly liked (it sounds terrible, I know) how animal-lover Ken kept accidentally killing Mrs. Coady’s dogs instead of the woman herself, and the way Otto periodically shouts, “Asshole!” at the top of his lungs.  I have a bit of a hard time believing that Archie, a longtime lawyer and morally upstanding person, would switch gears so dramatically and become a criminal — it seems rather out of character.  It’s entertaining though.

RATING:  Not bad.


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