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  • Writer's pictureShannon Heibler

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

What a painfully smart and funny movie. I don't remember the first time I saw it. It must have been college. A rental from Four Star Video Heaven during my quest to see all the Important Movies. But whenever I saw it, I loved it completely. So much of it has worked its way into my mental vocabulary (for good and ill). "It's even got a 'wuh' for 'Wendy!'" "Pork away, pal." "YOU CAN STICK THIS MARRIAGE RIGHT IN YOUR BOTTOM." (I deeply regret not yelling that when I got a divorce but, you know, terror. I certainly thought it a lot.)

Part of me wants to just list all the excellent trivia for this movie. This miracle of writing and talent and collaboration. But instead I'll just invite you to (re)watch this one and then head over to the IMDB trivia page. It's a good time. Makes some of the funniest scenes even funnier.

The four lead performances are sublimely good. This viewing, I was blown away by how quickly the dynamics of the relationships between thieves was illustrated. Very little dialogue but you knew how each and every one of them felt about the other and how that effected their operation. Genius. The Academy Awards so rarely recognize comedic performances with even nominations, but Kevin Kline earned his Oscar dozens of times over with Otto. His physicality is so total, so studied. The way he wakes up from reading Nietzsche to shoot the alarm clock. The sex scene. Backwards rolling out of a meditative stance. The facial expressions. I know that it was the fish eating scene that killed a man but the part that makes me cry with laughter is his full bodied commitment to getting run over with a steamroller.

The armpit smelling happens so often and it's funny every. single. time.

John Cleese's performance honestly ties everything together. It's so achingly vulnerable. His speech about what it means to be British and basically a walking corpse, terrified of embarrassment, juxtaposed with his later nudity in front of the people he bought his house from... It's funny and painful and he does beautiful work with that line. I never really caught the through-lines of shame and vulnerability before this viewing and by the end of the movie, it's his future I'm most invested in.

Jamie Lee Curtis is a stone cold fox and Wanda is everything I want to be. So smart, self-possessed, sexy, clever, and capable. The way she costumes herself in order to be the type of woman that can most easily worm her way into each man's life is brilliant and something it took me a long time to appreciate. Actors playing actors is one of my favorite things in the world, but this is next level. She shows us playing the roles and calibrating without alienating the audience which is INCREDIBLE. It's still so rare to see women on screen who have intelligence, ambition, sexual agency (with a kink!), and confidence without them having to be vilified somehow. Wanda is arguably a villain, but she's just so adept at surviving and thriving, I just want to be her. It's fun to watch her become vulnerable with Archie over time. Her speech calling Otto stupid is one of my favorite bits of film ever. "The central idea of Buddhism is not 'every man for himself.'" Brilliant.

But my heart belongs to Michael Palin. The (seemingly) kindest Python, his performance as Ken is a gift that has been giving for the last nearly 20 years of my life. He was inspired by his father, who stuttered, and that's why Ken isn't a joke but a fleshed out human. His kindness towards animals, indifference towards humans - except those who are kind to him, George and Wanda, give him a shocking amount of dimension. Something I never really tracked before was the pronouncement of his stutter and which situations is shows up in more. His first two lines are "Hello, Wanda" - once to the fish, without stutter, and one to Jamie Lee Curtis, very quietly and very broken. A small, itty bitty detail, but an important bit of character. Whether or not you clock it (certainly took me long enough), it immediately immerses you in the realities of these characters.


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