A Fish Called Wanda, by Albert W. Vogt III

There is much about A Fish Called Wanda (1988) that does not necessarily feed the soul.  That is, of course, what a Catholic reviewer such as myself prizes the most from a film.  There is dishonesty, infidelity, robbery, unfaithfulness, and violence.  It is also a comedy.  Sometimes these things can be funny, although I confess that I did not laugh as much as I hoped.  I watched this film because it stars two members of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), John Cleese and Michael Palin.  Indeed, A Fish Called Wanda was written by Cleese, and if you are familiar with the show that made him famous, you will notice similar styles in many of the scenes.  While this worked best in the show, and in films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), for whatever reason it did not translate as well for me in A Fish Called Wanda.  As I describe it, perhaps you will see why.

There is a sort of criminal line up of the main characters as A Fish Called Wanda is introduced.  One of the early ones is Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), though you will probably notice right away that she is no fish.  Instead, she is a con woman of the highest order.  I do not mean that she is necessarily great at misleading people.  It is more that she is pathological about it.  She is part of a gang that is headed by George Thomason (Tom Georgeson, which had to of been an inside joke).  He has an idea to pull off a heist that will net him and his accomplices millions.  The place where they meet to go over this plan is a flat George shares with his accomplice Ken Pile (Michael Palin), a stutterer.  The other member is an American, like Wanda, named Otto West (Kevin Kline), who is handy with a weapon but believes himself to be a pseudo-intellectual.  He is masquerading as Wanda’s brother, but in reality they are lovers.  You know that when you say that somebody is “masquerading” that a double-cross is about to happen.  This takes place directly after their heist, which involves jewels.  Otto and Wanda return to where they hid their stash, only to find the safe cleared out.  This is made more problematic by the fact that they had just called the police and had George take the fall for their crimes.  Before the police arrive, George had moved the loot to a safety deposit box at a hotel near the airport.  George hides the key to it and only lets Ken know the whereabouts of the key.  First finding this key and then the location of the stolen goods becomes the raison d’etre for Otto and Wanda, and pretty much a wild goose chase.  There are two people complicating the natural course of how these things usually go, thus prolonging the proceedings.  The first is Ken.  Following George’s arrest, a witness, Mrs. Eileen Coady (Patricia Hayes), comes forward to identify George as being one of the robbers.  George turns to the typically gentle, animal loving Ken to kill Mrs. Coady before she can talk.  His attempts at carrying out this order are more haphazard at first, and result, one-by-one, in the death of her dogs, to Ken’s horror.  Still, on this last one he succeeds in taking out his main target when she dies of a heart attack at seeing her sole remaining pet flattened under a giant slab of stone.  The other is the barrister representing George, Archie Leach (John Cleese).  Archie is married to Wendy (Maria Aitken), who clearly takes him for granted, as does their daughter Portia (Cynthia Cleese).  To Wanda, he is the ticket to figuring out where the diamonds are located.  She feels she is that much closer when she notices Ken hiding the key to the safety deposit box in the fish tank.  To get the information she wants, she decides to seduce Archie.  Otto is not comfortable with this arrangement, and while he agrees to it in principle, he is never far away to prevent things from getting too inappropriate.  To put it bluntly, he stalks them.  In the process of trying to get Archie to reveal the location of the loot, he begins to fall in love with Wanda.  This leads to a few near misses not only with the hyper-vigilant Otto, but with Wendy.  At one point, Wanda’s locket with the precious key inside falls off while inside the Leach home, and Archie covers for its presence by saying it is a gift to Wendy.  As this unfolds, she continues to claim to Otto that she is only using Archie to get what she wants from him.  Still, she seems to be developing feelings for him, too, even after she learns that he is not rich.  It is somewhat hard to tell as she is playing all the angles up until the end.  It is cleared up more when she finally takes the stand at George’s trial and points to him as the sole perpetrator of the offense.  An enraged George tries to attack Wanda, and the courtroom is cleared.  It also flusters Archie, who, with Maria in the gallery, inadvertently refers to Wanda as Wendy.  This, coupled with a number of missteps along the way, mean that his career as a lawyer is over.  His intent now is to catch with Wanda, get the jewels, and flee to South America.  Before they can get on the plane, they are accosted one last time by Otto.  He is taken care of by a cement roller, and the final scene is of Archie and Wanda on the plane headed to Rio de Janeiro, with one last look of Otto on the wing as they take off.

A Fish Called Wanda sagged in the middle in terms of pacing.  This could be a personal thing for me as I did not care much for the characters.  They are all problematic, even the supposedly gentle Ken.  I mean, he is trying to kill an old woman.  That is not good.  Between that and the horrible actions they all seem comfortable with committing, there was not much for me to latch onto as a Catholic.  There is a line, though, at the very end that did get me thinking of a few connections.  It gives a postscript for what happens to Archie and Wanda.  After they settle in Brazil, they have seventeen children together.  Of course, this is a bit of speculation on my part, but that does sound like a family of Catholic proportions.  Also, Brazil is a Catholic country, so who knows?  The leper colony aspect of this is interesting, too.  In the Middle Ages, the first hospital system was established by the Church, and in many cases their first job was to care for those with leprosy.  This has continued through the years, and St. Damien of Molokai was a priest who became a saint by doing these kinds of charitable works.  Of course, this is way too serious of a conservation for this movie.

There are a few chucklesome moments in A Fish Called Wanda.  I found myself laughing the most at the cartoonish dog death scenes, though I hate to see an animal go out in that manner.  On the whole, though, I was slightly underwhelmed.  I had heard about this movie for a number of years, and perhaps I built it up in my head too much based on what I knew of the cast.  So, to this movie, I say, “Meh.”


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