“Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every man for himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”
It’s rare that I make any sort of declaration along the lines of greatest of all time, but A Fish Called Wanda might just be the best comedy of all time. Written and directed by Charles Crichton (Dead of Night, The Lavender Hill Mob) and comedy legend John Cleese (The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Monty Python veterans John Cleese and Michael Palin, this is a brilliant comedy that artfully blends American and British humor into something that just about everyone will laugh at. The script and performances are brilliantly funny, but there’s a very solid plot here as well. Everything a comedy is supposed to do, this film does extremely well, and I can’t think of any comedy that succeeds as much as this one.
The plot follows a group of criminals in London pulling off a heist and then trying to double-cross each other. Wanda is a modern femme fatale and seems to be the brains of the group. She’s seduced Ken, an introverted and awkward man who loves animals and is now helping pull off this heist. She introduces her brother, brash weapons expert Otto, although their relationship is more complicated than it initially seems. George is another British man Wanda has seduced, who is set up to take the fall for everything. When George is arrested—after he hides the jewels—the rest of the gang needs to do whatever it takes to find out where he’s hidden them. Wanda moves in to seduce George’s lawyer, Archie, but things end up being much more complicated than planned.
How very interesting. You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?
As I mentioned, the script is great here, but it’s the cast that really elevates this film—particularly Kevin Kline, who won an oscar for his hilarious performance. It’s very rare that the cast of a film can be a draw for another film, but this cast was so great that they were reunited nine years later for the less effective (but still quite funny) Fierce Creatures. Each of the four main characters does an amazing job with their character, and the comedic performances are some of the best in cinema history, on par with performances from Airplane! and Some Like it Hot. With the great script, this is certainly one of the most—if not the most—effective comedies of all time.
This film came out in 1988, and it has some of that hit-or-miss wackiness that was so popular in 80s comedies, but with the absurdity written in by Cleese and the great performances, everything works extremely well. American comedy loves the quick payoff of a bait-and-switch while British comedy usually takes its time with a situation that becomes more and more absurd over time, and both of these are used to great effect here. There’s a little build-up in the beginning of the movie to lay the foundation for everything that is to follow, but once that’s out of the way, the laughs start pouring in and don’t stop until the credits roll.
I can’t stress this enough: A Fish Called Wanda is extremely funny, and has aged extremely well. Some may take issue with labeling this the best comedy of all time, but I think any aficionado would at least place it in the top five. It’s rated R, but doesn’t rely on overly raunchy jokes or shock humor like most of today’s comedies. For older teens and adults of all ages who enjoy laughing, this is a must-see movie.
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Director: Charles Crichton, John Cleese
Genres: comedy, crime