Our choice for the Heist Hold Up was the classic heist-comedy A Fish Called Wanda. This movie holds the distinct and rather dubious honour of being the only film in history to have killed someone. It happens to be so funny that an unlucky Danish audiologist laughed himself to death in 1989 while viewing it in a local theatre. Luckily, nobody succumbed to cardiac arrest during our viewing but if one thing became clear it was that A Fish Called Wanda is still comedy gold after more than 25 years.
Set in the aftermath of a near perfect heist, a group of eccentric criminals turn on each other in a rush to claim $20 million dollars of diamonds. Jamie Lee Curtis plays con artist Wanda Gershwitz, who brings in “weapons man” Otto (Kevin Kline) to betray the rest of the gang and escape with the loot. After betraying Wanda’s lover and the leader of the gang, Georges Thomason (Tom Georgeson), to the police they discover that, unbeknowst to them, he has already moved the diamonds. Wanda then turns her sights on his London Barrister, Archie Leach (John Cleese), in an attempt to have him convince George to give up the location of the big score. Rounding out the gang is animal lover Ken Pile (Michael Palin), who suffers from a horrible stutter and is responsible for taking care of the only witness to their crime, an elderly lady who happened to be out for a walk with her three dogs.
All of the main actors are brilliantly cast in their roles, with Kevin Kline winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Kline plays Otto as a deranged, moronic, pseudo-intellectual who constantly misinterprets philosophy (including mistaking the central tenet of Buddhism as “every man for himself”) spouts incomprehensible Italian, and has the interesting habit of taking deep whiffs of his armpits. One of the major draws of the film is the spectacular chemistry between all of the leads. Michael Palin and John Cleese had worked together for years in Monty Python but Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline also seemlessly fit into the cast and provide great moments of humour contrasting the uptight Brits with the freewheeling Americans. Kevin Kline declares at one point that without “the good ol’ U.S. of A.” they would be “smallest fucking province in the Russian Empire” and they’d “all be speaking German!”
The film goes from one hilarious set piece to another, with a particularly entertaining scene involving Wanda sneaking into Eddie Leach’s home to seduce him only to have both his wife and Otto interrupt. Charles Crichton (who co-wrote the film with Cleese) showcases his directorial talent throughout, smoothly transitioning from one brilliant farce to another. Another memorable moment (the one that proved to be too much for our Danish audiologist) involves Otto torturing Ken by sticking french fries up his nose and slowly eating his beloved pet fish, a play on the Brit love of fish-and-chips.
While A Fish Called Wanda still holds up as a comedy masterpiece, there are a few aspects of the story that I’m not sure would make the cut in the modern era. Ken’s horrendous stutter is mocked constantly by Otto and Otto attempts to cover his relationship with Wanda by pretending to be a gay man and repeatedly trying to seduce Ken. Also, one of the funniest set pieces involves Ken attempting to murder the elderly witness but accidentally killing her pet dogs in increasingly outlandish schemes that could potentially throw off any animal lovers in the audience but it is done in such a hilarious and comedic manner that even PETA members would be keeling over with laughter.
Wanda: I’m sorry about my brother, Ken. I know he’s insensitive. He’s had a hard life. Dad used to beat him up.
Overall I cannot recommend this movie enough and if you do enjoy it the main cast reunited for 1997’s Fierce Creatures. Dubbed by Kevin Kline as an “equal” (instead of a sequel because the stories aren’t related) the movie doesn’t reach the same comedic heights as A Fish Called Wanda but is still very enjoyable.