1988 / Best Director

Film #553: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Hi folks, I told you I’d be back and for this next little part of our Best Director trip I’m going to look at a number of English language films from the 1980s and late 1970s before zooming back to cover all the foreign language movies. First up in this little section is 1988 nominee A Fish Called Wanda which, alongside its best director nomination, scooped up the Best Supporting Actor prize for Kevin Kline’s portrayal of the slightly psychotic Otto West.

Although I’ve watched bits of A Fish Called Wanda before this is the first time I’ve seen the entire film and I have to say I’m quite surprised it did as well as it did at The Oscars. That’s because, for the most part, it’s an out and out straight comedy which the Academy don’t seem to honour that much unless Woody Allen is attached to the film. This is also a film that has no real lead but instead an ensemble made up of Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and John Cleese. The basic plot of the film sees Curtis’ femme fatale Wanda set up her gangster boyfriend George Thomason following a jewellery heist, landing him in jail so she and lover Otto can take off with the loot. The only issue is that George stashed the ill-gotten gains before his arrest so Otto and Wanda have to find a way to discover where the jewels are. Wanda sees a way to get to George via his barrister Archie Leach, played by Cleese, who she attempts to seduce several times but always finds herself being interrupted by Otto. Running concurrently to the main story is a series of small sketches involving Palin’s Ken, George’s right-hand man who has a love of fish and a terrible stutter. Ken has been tasked with killing off the old lady who is the only eye-witness to the heist but always seems to murder one of her dogs instead of the intended target. I have to say that some of the scenes involving Ken are the best in my opinion and they perfectly break up the action in between the main plots.

I found A Fish Called Wanda to be a fine old-fashioned farce with a great Oscar nominated script from Cleese and director Charles Crichton. I thought that the script was well-punctuated by character comedy, great one-liners and some fine slapstick in the scenes involving Ken. Meanwhile the characters of Wanda and Archie well were well-rounded meaning that we cared about the outcome of the plot as the action wrapped up. One slight issue I had though was the way in which Wanda suddenly finds herself in love with Archie after simply trying to seduce him to get to the jewels. Whilst I believed in his infatuation for her, Wanda was built up as such a strong woman that it was hard for her to fall for some as hapless as Archie. However one thing I can’t argue with are the performances from both Cleese and Curtis both of whom are great at enhancing their character’s quirky traits for full comedic effect. Curtis is especially great as the woman who is able to wrap all of the men round her finger simply by using her feminine wiles. Oddly off the cast the only performance I initially struggled to warm to was that of Kevin Kline who went a little over-the-top as the stupid criminal Otto. It was only during the final third of the movie that I was won over by Kline’s turn but even then I didn’t feel it was worthy of an Oscar. If anything I found Michael Palin to give the better supporting turn with his scenes as Ken almost feeling like something that had been taken out of a silent movie. I think that Palin also made Ken the most sympathetic character especially during the infamous scene in which Otto ties the stuttering henchman to a chair and starts to eat his pet fish in front of him.

For all of its positives, I never really thought of A Fish Called Wanda as a film that showed any particular directorial flair and so I’m surprised at Crichton’s inclusion in the list. Whilst the final set piece of the film is well-orchestrated there was nothing to suggest to me that this was a film that was deserving of a Best Director nomination. However as a film as a whole I think A Fish Called Wanda should have been awarded a place in that year’s Best Picture field however there is one more film to watch from 1988 before I can make that decision.

And so in my next review I turn my attention to that other film which is also the only Martin Scorsese movie to be nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture.

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