not in our stars, but in ourselves
I’ve a confession for you, dear reader(s): I have actually watched A Fish Called Wanda several times in the past couple of months, reveling in it every time, but finding myself not quite capable of putting into words why I love it so much. Obviously, it’s terrifically funny. It’s got a stellar cast. It’s eminently quotable; how many times a day do I fight the urge to yell at passing cars or bikes, “ASSHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLES!” Basically every five minutes. At a bare minimum. But it’s hard to spin that into 1000 or so words, you know? “I like this movie. It makes me laugh and feel good.” Well, okay. What else? Maybe I won’t articulate it as well as I’d like, but I think I figured out the “what else.” Patience, please.
In London, Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) is part of a gang of bank robbers and jewel thieves. Archie Leach (John Cleese) is a barrister. Wanda and her fellow crooks – George (Tom Georgeson), the ringleader and her lover; Otto (Kevin Kline), also her lover but posing as her brother; and Ken (Michael Palin), a devoted animal rights activist who’s in love with her – pull off a huge heist and steal hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of jewels. Wanda and Otto have decided to pin the entire thing on George, and split the loot between themselves – although Wanda really intends to ditch Otto and take it all. However, George moves the jewels before they can pinch them, so Wanda decides to try to “get to know” George’s lawyer, Archie. Archie is trapped in a tense, loveless marriage with a posh bimbo, Wendy (Maria Aitken), and he’s instantly attracted to the vivacious Wanda. She finds that she’s attracted to him, too, but she is a woman on a mission: put George in prison, get the jewels, get rid of Otto, and get gone. Between Otto’s fanatical jealousy, the shaky ground on which Wanda and Archie are building their relationship, the mystery of where the jewels could be, and Ken’s unfortunate tendency to kill dogs when he means to kill a witness, it all gets pretty convoluted. Fear not, friends: all’s well that ends well. Wanda and Archie live happily ever after, Ken gets to help animals for the rest of his life, and Otto moves to South Africa to become Minister for Justice. Contrapasso all around.
Cleese wrote the screenplay, and it’s almost mind-blowing to realize that the same man who brought us one-fifth of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and half of Fawlty Towers also brought us one hundred percent of this always funny, but also always surprisingly sweet, tender, sensitive, and deeply felt romantic comedy. He calls on his training as a lawyer (he has joked that the other Python lads saved him from a “life of crime,” as he was studying law at Cambridge when the group formed) to provide the basic framework: a depressed middle-aged barrister who’s quite good at what he does, but who doesn’t find all that much personal or professional fulfillment in helping yobbos beat criminal charges. The really fun stuff is in committing those criminal acts leading to the charges, obviously: stealing, fucking, having a grand old time. Archie is written as a man living in quiet despair, not quite knowing why he feels so terribly unfulfilled – until he sees Wanda and realizes what he’s been missing. Sex, laughter, fun, everything that makes life worth living. To uphold the law is a fine and noble thing; to break it is a hell of a lot more exciting.
This is what finally struck me, on my third or fourth viewing: Wanda is, in many ways, the kind of woman we haven’t seen gracing our screens since the Pre-Code era. This movie is about as ’80s as it gets, in the fashion and the music, but Wanda is a soul straight from 1932 or so. Think about it: she uses her sexuality to get exactly what she wants, when she wants it. She allows the men in her life to think she really values them and finds them interesting, until she’s finally able to jettison them. She enjoys their attention, of course; she enjoys the sex; she enjoys being desired; but she’s in control, using her considerable charms to navigate her way and get ahead in a shitty, male-dominated world. And the most Pre-Code stroke of all: she’s not punished for daring to make her own way in the only way she knows how. Indeed, she’s rewarded with True Love and a happy, stable life with Archie in Buenos Aires. I cannot overstate how much I love that Cleese has created a female character who’s not merely permitted to have sex without being shamed or hurt for it; but who’s celebrated and revered for her intelligence, humor, determination – and, of course, for her slammin’ bod. Nothing wrong with a little bit of scopophilia as long as you acknowledge the human being you’re ogling, and it’s clear that Cleese sees Wanda as a real person who deserves respect and love and stability, even if he also sees her as the woman of his fantasies. If you find someone who lights up all those parts of your brain, wife her (or, uh, husband him).
What else can I say? A Fish Called Wanda is a top-five rom-com for me. It is equally as romantic as it is comedic, and that’s rare enough within the genre. Rarer still, it is blatantly pro-Wanda – which we might even dare to call a little bit feminist – in the ways that it clearly admires her for how adroitly she uses and discards mediocre men, and how deeply she falls for the one man who sees her as she is. To the uninitiated, it may be surprising that one of the Python lads, the one who went on to create and embody the eternally harangued Basil Fawlty, could have imagined something so lovely and warm and affectionate; but remember, dear reader(s), that cynics are almost always heartbroken idealists, and we never quite stop hoping that our original optimism will be justified.