A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1988: You’re a true vulgarian!

A FISH CALLED WANDA (dir. Charles Crichton and John Cleese)

Maybe this isn’t universal, but I think it’s pretty close, at least among musicheads: when we’re young, we think and expect that the bands we love are all best friends and communal life partners. Maybe they all live in a big house together, or at least wish they did. That’s the way it worked on The Monkees, right? So it must be real. And then, of course, to get a little older and start more serious learning about music is to come to understand that this pretty much is never how it works.

Monty Python weren’t a band, of course, but everyone I knew back in the 80s mapped the same sort of belief onto them. I have to assume that the culture has shifted significantly in the years since then, but when I was a kid it was just a given that a sizable minority of us were going to get exposed to Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a birthday party or sleepover and then have our minds totally colonized by the Pythons, leading to a feverish walk through their filmography (difficult but possible in the 80s, given VCRs and cable tv) and a general belief that they were the Most Important Thing Ever. And then we’d all realize that the Most Important Thing Ever didn’t seem to be putting out any movies after Meaning of Life, and we’d all wonder: what was wrong? Did they not love each other anymore? Had the band broken up? Oh shit, the band must have broken up!*

*For this to make any sense at all, of course, you have to remember that in 1986 there wasn’t an internet that you could pop open to look at a Wiki page. I don’t think anyone I knew would have had any idea back then how to figure out what the actual status of Monty Python was, beyond maybe asking our parents, who—remember, this is rural Nebraska here—wouldn’t have had a fucking clue.

All of which is to say: when I was in junior high and A Fish Called Wanda started creeping into my friends’ collective consciousness through the twin media of cable tv and video rentals, it was a big deal. New Python-ish stuff! Sure, it didn’t have all of them (and was it true that maybe one of them was dead?), but it had Cleese and Palin, and those were two of the bigs, and right fuckin’ on!

And now for something completely different…

And then we saw it, and it of course wasn’t exactly the same Python vibe; it was a much more coherent (if often silly), dialogue-driven story about criminals double-crossing each other. And for my part: that was totally fine. Awesome, even, maybe. It was 1988 (or maybe ’89 by the time it got to me) now, and I was a discerning early teen, no longer the little baby who’d memorized all of the dialogue from Holy Grail (although god help you if you gave me a conversational opening to drop a line or two). And my discernment declared this movie to be one of the best ever.

Looking back from 2024, I can see a lot of what appealed to me about A Fish Called Wanda. Going into it looking for Python vibes, it does serve up pretty funny performances from the two Pythons; John Cleese has pretty solidly revealed himself as a crusty shithead in recent years, but Wanda is pitched really well to his strengths, using comedic judo to make his general overconfident-prick vibe into a vehicle for sympathy and comedy. And Palin, well, we’ll talk about Palin’s character in a bit. But whatever beefs I have with it now lean on a consciousness that I absolutely did not have in the late 80s, so Palin came across as hilarious at the time.

That said, however much I wanted this to be a Python movie, it’s the two American leads who sell it. Jamie Lee Curtis, through skill and charisma, perfectly walks a high wire of being extremely funny and sympathetic while playing one of the most amoral characters I’ve ever seen (there’s literally no member of the cast that she doesn’t deceive or betray at some point).*

*And speaking of her: do you know anyone who’s had a more fruitful “you know what, my legacy is secure, I’m gonna do what I feel like doing, and in each case I’m going in as hard as possible” late-career run than she has for the last decade or so?

But as great as she is, this is Kevin Kline’s movie. Without him, it’s a pretty funny late 80s comedy. With him, you maybe have an argument for transcendence. Otto, as embodied by Kline, is one of my favorite comedic characters ever. He’s the perfect American asshole. Ignorant and overconfident, utterly convinced of his own righteousness and enlightenment, murderously furious if someone calls him stupid, Otto cannonballs through the movie functioning as a walking metaphor for American cultural rot, and Kline sells every moment of it. One of his exchanges with Curtis simultaneously sets up her funniest line in the movie while nailing the essence of a very particular and pervasive type of asshole:

WANDA: …But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?

OTTO: Apes don’t read philosophy.

WANDA  Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.

And to be clear, as good as that exchange is on paper, Kline and Curtis make it a thousand times better.

America throws its weight around.

Everything I’ve said so far solidified into my opinion on A Fish Called Wanda as the 80s moved into and then through the 90s. By the turn of the century, I’d moved on to watching other movies, so if asked, I’d say it was great and talk about Otto and then move on to talking reverently about Charlie Kaufman or Sofia Coppola or something. And that was that, and that was fine, the circle of life for artistic appreciation.

Until about a decade ago, when circumstances allowed me to start a master’s program in art history. And I’ve talked a bunch in other venues about how great that experience was for me, in terms of broadening my horizons and expanding my heart and my brain and opening me up to new perspectives. But one other benefit that I’ve never really talked about was that, as one of the older students in a small program, I ended up getting to know and making friends with a bunch of people about 20 years younger than me. And I highly, highly recommend doing this, if you can! You’ll feel a thousand years old at times, and you’ll feel weird about the cyclical nature of the generations as you watch your younger friends go through situations you navigated while they were playing with toys; but you’ll also be jolted out of the ruts you’ve aged into, and you’ll have access to societal perspectives that would never have occurred to you.

 And so it was a year or two ago that I was walking through a dog park with a much-younger friend from grad school, talking about movies, and she mentioned that she’d just tried to watch A Fish Called Wanda and finished it with gritted teeth, loathing every minute of it. The animal cruelty put her off, she said, the running joke about dogs getting killed and then Otto eating a whole tank of fish. And the homophobia, with a runner and a lot of plot mechanics depending on Otto pretending to come on to Palin’s Ken, and Ken being horrified. And the cruelty of the movie’s constant presentation of Ken’s stutter as a source of comedy.

It’d been at least 15 years since I’d last seen the movie at that point, but I was still stunned. Because she was right, or at least mostly right, and absolutely none of that had been on my radar when I was younger (although I do think that these were all things that would bother me if I watched the movie for the first time now; but my thoughts on the movie had crystallized decades previously).  A bunch of responses formed in my brain, of varying levels of validity; but I saw pretty quickly that the only decent thing to say was the truth: that I remembered it as being pretty funny back in the day, but yeah, she raised a lot of good points.

Looking at those responses: I think there’s an argument you can make that Otto leaning on a gay-panic gambit is entirely in character and maybe even furthers the point that he’s an asshole; but that point gets undone when you realize that the movie as a whole—which presents Ken as the best of the criminals, his willingness to try to kill old ladies notwithstanding—depends on Ken’s horrified reaction to make the whole thing work. Similarly, I think there’s maybe an argument to be made that the violence against animals is too cartoonish (at one point a dog gets a big rock dropped on it, Wile E. Coyote-style) really register as upsetting; but that’s about the most subjective possible argument that a person could make. And finally, on the stuttering comedy: maybe there’s an argument to be made that the movie clearly presents Ken as a whole person who deserves respect (and gets it from everyone except the asshole), and generally holds his own; but by the time you get to making that argument, you see that you’re standing alone in front of an empty jury box whose members left a while ago because it became  clear that they were hearing from someone who just refused to be wrong.

Where does this leave me? I guess I still think fondly of A Fish Called Wanda, mostly because of Otto and the other great performances. But it’s not a movie I’m likely to go back to any time soon, because yeah, the stuff that bothered my friend bothers me, too, now that I see it. Looking at culture, we all argue a lot about whether things should get a pass for being of a certain time. And the problematic stuff about Wanda is certainly of its time; but it represents points of view from that time that I’m glad to have left behind. The trick, I suppose, is working out what’s bad enough to call for full renunciation as opposed to a sort of “I like it, but with an asterisk acknowledging that there’s some stuff in here that hoo boy has not aged well and I’m not about to defend now.” And between those two, I don’t know that line is always going to be universal or easy to spot. All you can do is act in good faith, be ready for more conversation, and—most importantly—not be the asshole who refuses to hear or acknowledge the criticism.

Acknowledging that this is pretty much entirely because it got into my brain when I was younger and living in the times it represents, I don’t think I’m ready to fully renounce it. I think Wanda contends with Life of Brian for the title of “funniest movie associated with members of Monty Python.” But I also have to acknowledge that yes, there’s some serious late-80s cultural stink on the movie, and the fact that I grew up smelling it and maybe got used to it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

One last thing real quick! If you’re enjoying these, and have some change rattling around in your pocket, I’ve got one of them thar ko-fi things set up. I’m also considering starting a Patreon with extra movie writeups for each year; let me know if that’s a thing you’d be interested in!

2 thoughts on “A LIFE IN FILM #15 – A FISH CALLED WANDA

  1. Wow! I loved that movie when I was younger also. As a parent, I tend to have my kids watch movies I loved back then. I hadn’t gotten to this one yet and probably won’t now. I appreciate you bringing this movie into a new light. We definitely have changed from our teenage selves and I was pretty inclusive even at that age.

    1. I did have a pretty long discussion with a friend over on Bluesky who did argue pretty conclusively that the movie’s more nuanced on the gay panic side, at least (his argument is that it’s not that Ken’s homophobic, it’s more that he’s more or less asexual and is just really grossed out by Otto and put off by how strongly Otto pretends to hit on him; one piece of evidence the guy put up for this argument, that I thought was at least sort of persuasive, was that Ken’s also put off when Wanda pretends to hit on him). He also argues the “everyone but Otto treats Ken with respect, only the asshole makes un of his stutter” position, but I’m not as convinced there.

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