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Movie of the Day: A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

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What Is It?

Monty Python has a partial reunion as John Cleese and Michael Palin portray an uptight barrister and stuttering criminal, respectively, in this caper comedy that also stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a femme fatale with a (literal) heart of gold and Kevin Kline as an intellectually insecure ex-spy.

What’s Cool About It?

We mentioned the whole Monty Python thing, right? That’s either pretty cool or extremely niche and nerdy relative to your view of experimental British sketch comedy from the early 1970’s. Although John Cleese wrote this movie, he was more inspired by classic crime comedies from the post-war film era than Python-esque absurdism. In fact, Cleese came up with the story along with director Charles Crichton (no relation to Michael) partially as an homage to Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob, one of several great Alec Guinness movies in this sub-genre; the others are Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, ICYWW, the latter of which is also referenced in one of the storylines here. Cleese’s role as a lawyer named Archie Leach contains two inside jokes: a reference to Cleese’s background studying Law at Cambridge and a nod to Cary Grant’s real “British” name. Kevin Kline also won on Oscar for his role in this movie, which longtime Academy watchers know is an Everest-level mountain to climb for actors in comedic roles.

If I Hate British Humor, Is It Worth Watching?

This movie is written by one of Britain’s most legendary comedians and directed by a fellow countryman. The humor is definitively British, though it draws a lot on Hollywood tropes and American stereotypes. In addition to the forays into ethics, philosophy and animal rights, this movie also delves into the nature of the English and American national characters. As the politics in both these countries has veered towards revivalist nationalism through the rise of the Brexiteers and the President Who Shall Not Be Named, A Fish Called Wanda actually feels more relevant today than perhaps any point in the 30 years since its release. The film’s central conflict between Cleese’s neurotic Oxbridge aristocrat and Kline’s ugly American sociopath offers a unique commentary on the so-called special relationship between American and British cultures.

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