“A Fish Called Wanda” (at the Regent) is a convulsively funny affair, written by John Cleese and directed by Charles Crichton, of “The Lavender Hill Mob” fame.
Low comedy at high speed, it pretends to be a caper movie about a smooth London jewel heist and its infinitely complex aftermath. Actually, it’s a smart farce about ingrained cultural differences, playing the clenched respectability of the Brits against the hearty spontaneity--some might call it vulgarity--of the Yanks.
And since “Wanda” is at heart a love story, it worries whether these differences can coexist in the same rumpled bed.
You couldn’t say that the members of “Wanda’s” nifty cast play with one another; they’re more like the self-contained characters in some glowing video game, wildly ricocheting off one another in complete isolation.
Everyone except Cleese’s proper, peruked barrister (called Archie Leach, Cary Grant’s true name) whips about at top speed, ferociously intent on doing the others in, out of pure greed.
They are gang members Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), woman enough for all of them; Otto “Don’t call me Stoopid!” West (Kevin Kline), a walking arsenal; Ken Pile (Michael Palin), an animal lover with a pronounced stammer, whose pet fish is also named Wanda; and Cockney George (Tom Georgeson) of the pencil-thin mustache, the gang’s utterly suspect leader.
It’s because Archie is defending George that he comes under Wanda G.'s interested scrutiny, since George has stashed the diamonds before being stashed in Old Bailey himself.
Poor, sweet Archie; he begins as a proper, neglected British paterfamilias and wakes up, under Wanda’s spell, to find himself a man besotted, borrowing apartments for afternoon liaisons and waltzing about starkers, to Wanda’s bemusement.
(Everyone has a little something to watch in “Wanda.” Some, understandably, may be distracted
by Curtis, who has the most purposeful retreating walk since Marilyn Monroe. Other careful observers may notice that the administrator of the Ministry of Silly Walks has apparently been working out and is something of a thing of beauty himself. He always had splendid legs but the rest of him now matches nicely.)
We can see what Wanda means to Archie, a gust of fresh air, the breath of life. Most of all, a respite from Being British and/or from his virago wife and demanding equestrian daughter (Maria Aitken and real-Cleese daughter Cynthia Caylor, respectively). What perturbs us is how much Archie is being played for a sap, since he is, in his unleashed condition, obviously such a find.
But “Wanda” is far from just the Wanda-Archie hanky-panky. There’s also Wanda’s involvement with that paramilitary idiot Otto, who stalks about in terrorist chic, spewing his hatred of the British, all of whom have contracted “rigor mortis in the prime of life.”
Otto’s sex-shtick with Wanda is to turn her on with romantic Italian phrases, but we keep noticing they’re words like osso buco or Volare. Kline is deliriously dotty in the role; if the CIA ever recruits him, we’re all dead.
There’s also a full-blown farcical plot involving the one eyewitness to their robbery, the eagle-eyed Patricia Hayes, quintessential fierce little old lady and mistress of three Yorkshire terriers. (We last saw Hayes as the good sorceress in “Willow,” spinning Jean Marsh like centrifugal force, but she’s far more hilarious here.)
Poor Michael Palin’s Ken, the lover of animals, is assigned the job of offing the L.O.L. and predictably gets the dear little doggies instead, one after the other. There are decidedly nasty moments to this movie, but the demise of these certifiably Dynel doggies is not one of them--it is purely and simply riotous.
It’s the fish-and-chips scene that may affront some or possibly Palin’s punishing stammer. (The film is MPAA-rated R for brief nudity, sexual situations and perhaps the unpleasant intensity of that scene.)
Crichton keeps his cast’s intricate comings and goings in impeccable order with a minimum of attention called to his own exquisite stewardship.
But those with a taste for his great Ealing Studio classics, “Hue and Cry” and “The Titfield Thunderbolt,” will know a master’s delicate hand when they see it. He’s the man who gets the revolving door spinning, and gently pushes each character in and out of it, never bumping, never bruising but never slowing down for one instant, either. (As a note of encouragement, this is also the Crichton whose birth year the reference books list as 1910.)
In his years with Monty Python and on “Fawlty Towers,” Cleese was wizardly at uncovering and railing against the qualities in the British character that most deeply appalled him. In “Wanda,” written from his and Crichton’s original story, he throws those qualities into bas relief.
You won’t find a sequence more horrifyingly funny than the cross-cutting between the bedroom habits of Wanda and Otto and Archie and his wife. It makes you root for the Archie-Wanda love affair to work; Wanda needs a man of spirit, much less intelligence; Archie needs Wanda’s personal remedial attentions.
And comedy this outrageous needs a soft spot at its heart, to offset its lust, brutality and cheerful disregard for propriety. Fortunately for all concerned, not one of these needs seems to go unmet.
‘A FISH NAMED WANDA’
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presentation of a Michael Shamberg/Prominent Features production. Producer Shamberg. Executive producers Steve Abbott, John Cleese. Director Charles Crichton. Screenplay Cleese from an original story by Cleese and Crichton. Camera Alan Hume. Production design Roger Murray-Leach. Music John Du Prez. Editor John Jympson. Costumes Hazel Pethig. Associate producer John Comfort. Sound recordist Chris Munro. Art director John Wood. Set decorator Stephanie McMillan. With John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Maria Aitken, Tom Georgeson, Patricia Hayes, Cynthia Caylor.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).