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'A Fish Called Wanda'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1988


Charles Crichton
John Cleese;
Jamie Lee Curtis;
Kevin Kline;
Michael Palin;
Tom Georgeson;
Patricia Hayes
everything and is playing at area theaters
Supporting Actor

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"A Fish Called Wanda" is the catch o' the day -- a fresh and flaky farce, half-baked and served with a saucy performance by Jamie Lee Curtis and your choice of chaps (John Cleese, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline). It's a deliciously dishy comedy, but like sushi an acquired taste.

This irreverent whopper of the Monty Python school is bound to outrage special interests galore -- dog lovers, stutterers, feminists and people opposed to fries up the nose. And yet it has a classic madcap grace, thanks no doubt to its legendary director, Charles Crichton of "The Lavender Hill Mob."

Crichton, who cowrote the story with Cleese, takes up with a more predatory gang of thieves here -- fishy characters whose coral-reef credo is "eat or be eaten." One is a stammering animal lover, Ken (Palin), who names his beloved angelfish for the heroine (Curtis) with her great set of gills. Ken, Wanda and cohorts Otto (Kline) and George (Tom Georgeson) plan and pull off a jewel heist in London's Hatton Gardens, then one by one they turn on each other. And the story is off and running, frisky as Flipper and slippery as a rainbow trout.

Wanda Gershwitz's greed drives the plot. She's grabbing for clams as if it were all-you-can-eat night at Howard Johnson's. She seduces just about everybody in hopes of making off with the booty. Alas, only George knows where the gems are hidden and he's in jail because she and Otto turned him in. The key, she decides, is George's veddy British barrister, Archie (Cleese). "I love how you cross-examine," coos Wanda, posing as an adoring law student. A tart who knows torts -- Archie is hooked.

Ordinarily Curtis is hard to watch, but here she grows on you. She's justifiably proud of her body, and playing a sex object d'art seems to come naturally to her. Cleese, who masterminded the inventive, happily demented script, evolves from a wimp in a wig to a swashbuckler. He's Basil Fawlty with dignity and, since it's the 1980s in Britain too, sensitivity.

Otto, an Anglophobe, tries to kill him with an antique warming pan. A former CIA operative, best treated as live ammo, he delights in mocking "Kuh-kuh-kuh-ken" and ranting against the English. "They get rigor mortis ... standing there with their hair all clenched up, just waiting for the weekend so they can dress up as ballerinas and whip each other into a frenzy." Otto, on the other hand, prefers to, say, undress Wanda and blow up her boots. "He's so dumb he thought the Gettysburg Address was where Lincoln lived," Wanda says.

Kline plays the character gleefully, caroming off his costars like corn in a popper. It's audacious, an outrageous performance on the ledge. But the company never lets him fall off. He's an American screwball bouncing off the British slapstick, and the energy is immense. Not since Crocodile Dundee moved to New York City have cultures clashed so mightily.

Poor rabbity Ken is delicate as a china teacup, so he suffers most from his encounters with the brash American. "You've got a beautiful speaking voice when it works," says Otto. But the travails only make Ken strong, and before it's over, he will have turned into a lion. And that is one of the reasons we can laugh -- we know the last laugh will be his.

"A Fish Called Wanda" is dark and strange, even sadistic. It's guilty fun with the unsettling feel of "Something Wild" and "After Hours," male fantasies in which kinky women lure uptight fish out of the water. Just as a pirate in a bodice-ripper carries off a swooning slave girl, Wanda takes Archie away from all this, makes him rich and reawakens his urges. "Wanda" is a Harlequin romance for men, a breakthrough for Britain and a deftly directed and wonderfully acted sex farce for consenting adults. Don't let this "Fish" get away.

A Fish Called Wanda is rated R for everything and is playing at area theaters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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