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‘A Fish Called Wanda’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1988


Charles Crichton
John Cleese;
Jamie Lee Curtis;
Kevin Kline;
Michael Palin;
Tom Georgeson;
Patricia Hayes
Under 17 restricted
Supporting Actor

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If you love the various British characters John Cleese plays in "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Fawlty Towers" -- perpetually exasperated men who depend on any combination of pig-headedness, sarcasm and larynx-strained rantings to stumble through life -- don't cast for them in his new comedy, "A Fish Called Wanda."

It is the Americans, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis, who net most of the comedy here. Kline assumes Cleese's characteristic barbs and histrionics triumphantly as a belligerent jewel robber named Otto. And Curtis plays his rapacious girlfriend Wanda with exhilarating fervor.

But Pythoners Cleese and Michael Palin who, together and apart, have known few comic bounds, are relatively subdued. Cleese smooths his maniacal edginess into the romantic, henpecked figure of Brit barrister Archie Leach, while Palin plays Ken Pile, an introverted stutterer who loves animals, owns a fish called Wanda and knows where a cache of stolen jewels is hidden.

In this rather tame heist-and-farce formula (aimed all too conventionally for American audiences), a gang of gem thieves, including Ken, Otto, Wanda (the woman) and a weaselly leader called George (Tom Georgeson), have made off with a pile of jewels. But when George gets caught by the London cops, the conspirators have to cool their heels while George stands trial. Dastardly Otto and Wanda would love to take the booty and run, but only Ken and George know of its whereabouts. Wanda starts up an affair with George's lawyer Archie (Cleese) to wrest information, and Otto eventually tries to grill Ken, trussing him up, ramming french fries up his nose and chomping down his fish.

The fish chomping and a few other grimly comic scenes like that are all that recall Cleese's and Palin's glory days: Animal lover Ken, attempting to off a dear old lady who is also a dangerous court witness, keeps deep-sixing her lapdogs; and in a scene reminiscent of "Fawlty Towers," a naked Archie, thinking he has found a perfect lover's hideaway for his adulterous tryst with Wanda, is surprised by a family that has just bought the place and happens to know Archie quite well.

As Otto, a purported ex-CIA marksman who claims to know philosophy (Aristotle, he believes, was Belgian and the London Underground a political movement) and who hates the English, Kline is a delightful fireball of manic, pompous energy. And Curtis as the slinky temptress Wanda is a perfect comic counterpart. When the couple makes love, Otto likes to mumble fake Italian gigolese into her ear -- words like "mozzarella" and "parmegiano" -- to which she ardently replies "Oh, speak it! Speak it!"

"Wanda," though decently directed by comedy veteran Charles ("The Lavender Hill Mob") Crichton, is only as good as Cleese's formulaic script (Cleese is also executive producer). It'll keep you amused enough to sit still and even remember it fondly. But it seems a light day's fishing for Messers Cleese and Palin.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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