Monty Python was arguably the most versatile of comic troupes. Each of its members displayed an abundant range of creative poses and vocal deliveries in addition to wry intelligence. While their act is undeniably outlandish, there’s something very subtle about the performances and how the actors interacted that made everything work. Perhaps that’s why a majority of the individual efforts after the British ensemble had disbanded lacked the same flair. A noted exception to this is A Fish Called Wanda, a film that channels much of the effortless wit and energy of Monty Python’s work that also possesses its own personality.
A Fish Called Wanda’s Monty Python influence comes primarily from John Cleese, who stars in and wrote the screenplay about four London jewel thieves chasing some elusive loot after one of them is arrested. Also on hand from Python-land is Michael Palin, here playing Ken Pile, a stutterer and an animal lover—two attributes that make him the butt of a hefty number of the film’s jokes. As Palin hams it up with yet another of his famously nervous characters, Cleese plays the straight man, a barrister brilliantly named Archie Leach. Initially this proves an odd fit for the actor, who so often commands the screen with exaggerated annunciation and body language. But once Archie becomes entangled in the thieves’ scheme, Cleese slowly teases out a confection of classic looks and one-liners that rivals the actor’s finest work.
Actually, Cleese was smart to give himself the straight-man role, because the main reason why A Fish Called Wanda endures today as one of the most famous screen comedies of the past several decades is Kevin Kline, who sinks his teeth into the role of the abrasive, impulsive American named Otto. Kline gives the film a manic energy from which all the other players feed. Hardly a scene goes by that Kline doesn’t take over with his over-the-top hijinks. That being said, his performance is much more interesting than the profound dull-wittedness that this character exudes. After all, how many precise-knife throwers and killers have the kind of earnest affinity for philosophy as Otto does?
Kline’s terrific performance is rooted more in how he makes Otto such a loveable twit, a harder job than it initially might seem. Observe, for example, how poignantly he expresses hurt each of the many times during the film that someone calls him stupid. It’s obvious he hears it a lot; his rage practically flips on like a light switch, a maneuver that no doubt helps him to avoid acknowledging the truth that he hasn’t fooled anyone with his citation of philosophy and world affairs. And the saddest part is that he really aspires to be respected, despite too often undermining his own attempts to fulfill that wish with brash and practically uncontrollable rudeness. There’s palpable sadness in his eyes, for example, when his girlfriend, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), informs him that the London Underground isn’t a political movement that lends more richness to the comedic payoff. Also, his jealous reaction upon learning that Wanda must cozy up to Archie for information resembles the maturity of a petulant teenager, amplifying his bungled attempt to set ground rules for what Wanda can and cannot touch.
Kline shines in a number of other recurring comic bits, from Otto’s ability to unsubtly sneak up on and invade the space of other characters, to his sexual antics that encompass dramatically smelling his armpits and hopping in unnatural ways. Then, of course, the scene from which the film derived its title showcases Kline’s astonishing physical presence (and facial muscle control), as Otto slowly swallows all of the fish from Ken’s aquarium, even dangling some between his lips, in an attempt to coerce Ken into revealing the location of the jewels.
On the whole, A Fish Called Wanda offers a steady dose of humor that springs from the intensely awkward interactions between characters. These exchanges benefit especially from inspired performances and dialogue, the latter sporting beauties such as “You are the vulgarian, you fuck!” (defiantly declared by Otto). Other set pieces are less buoyant, such as Ken’s repeated attempts to knock off the lone witness to the crime and instead sending her pet dogs to their grave one by one. The same goes for the film’s casual homophobia, with several scenes playing up the discomfort of Otto’s attempts to distract Ken by revealing he’s gay, and the consistent mockery of speech disabilities. But on the whole, the film’s sharp wit and comic precision are enough to forgive some of its more glaring bits of poor taste. On the positive side, a bevy of simple, creative touches from director Charles Crichton lend some additional punch to the performances and writing.A number of visual punchlines punctuate individual scenes, notably a spinning zoom-out shot that reveals Archie being dangled out of a window by Otto as he attempts to calmly apologize for insulting him.
A Fish Called Wanda is at its most electric when it pits Cleese and Kline against each other. The dynamic between them gives the film a flavor that was absent from the more sealed off British-ness of Monty Python. With every exasperated speech Otto delivers about his disgust with English “properness,” a distinct undercurrent of national tension takes fuller shape. Yet, however tempting it may be to interpret Otto’s impulsive thoughtlessness as being emblematic of America itself, Cleese and Crichton are more interested in lampooning isolated cultural attitudes than in critiquing either of the two nations. And though Cleese is the main protagonist, both he and Crichton are fully aware that Kline is the soul of the film. Executed without a trace irony, Kline’s virtuoso performance uncannily fits into the Python-esque spirit of the proceedings while also clashing with it, pushing it in new and unexpected directions. Otto may be stupid, but Kline’s performance is evidence that stupid can be done right. Just don’t call it that.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2.