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Viewer Guide: “A Fish Called Wanda” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

April 27, 2022 | Richard Peña


A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

This week’s double feature begins with A Fish Called Wanda, the 1988 crime caper comedy directed by Charles Crichton.  

Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline co-star as Wanda and Otto, a larcenous brother & sister duo who team up for a major diamond heist with Wanda’s boyfriend George, a British gangster played by Tom Georgeson. George, meanwhile, enlists his partner Ken, played by Michael Palin. With the jewels worth about 13 million pounds, there’ll be plenty of money to go around for everyone; the only speed bump to the operation is the 72-hour waiting period to avoid police scrutiny at the airports before the gang can regroup and hop a plane for South America. Besides, what can go wrong in three days? Well, quite a lot, actually, especially when things are not as they first seem: George is not interested in sharing, and Wanda and Otto are most definitely not brother and sister. Then there’s the matter of Ken’s stammer, and his beloved aquarium, an unexpected new complication in the burglary’s aftermath. Trying to make sense of all the ensuing mayhem is Archie Leach, a lovelorn London barrister played by John Cleese, who unwittingly finds himself embroiled in the chaos that intensifies in equal proportion to his growing attraction for Wanda. 

John Cleese had been seeking to collaborate with A Fish Called Wanda’s director Charles Crichton since 1969. Crichton had directed such great Ealing Studio comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. He began working with Cleese on Wanda’s screenplay in 1983, updating the Ealing comedy formula with the outrageous slapstick of Monty Python. At the time of the film’s production, Crichton was 77 years old and had not directed a feature film in twenty years; Cleese reportedly co-directed in an uncredited capacity “just in case,” working closely with the actors and allowing them to shape their characters. Kevin Kline allegedly remarked that Cleese “hosted” the film, but the relaxed atmosphere paid off for Kline with the year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. After seeing Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places, Cleese was convinced that she would be perfect for Wanda; Curtis in turn helped Cleese with his own performance by encouraging him to be more spontaneous. Michael Palin’s father had actually been a stutterer, and Palin worked with Cleese to ensure that his role would be a fully fleshed out character, not just a comic caricature; in 1993, The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering opened in London, offering therapies to help manage the condition. And for all the film buffs who noticed, yes, “Archie Leach” was in fact Cary Grant’s real name, inspired by the fact that Grant and Cleese hailed from the same hometown. Cleese would later quip, “it’s the nearest I will ever get to being Cary Grant.” 


The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

This week’s double feature continues with The Peanut Butter Falcon, a 2019 comedy-drama written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.  

The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen as “Zak,” a young man with Down Syndrome enduring a prison-like existence at a North Carolina nursing home. Yet without a family that can properly care for him, there is little reason to think that anything is going to change soon, a grim outlook patiently explained to Zak by his sympathetic caregiver Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson. But after two and a half years, Zak is desperate to escape his inappropriate senior living confinement, dreaming of becoming a professional wrestler like his idol, “the Salt Water Redneck,” played by Thomas Haden Church. Succeeding in finally breaking out with the help of his roommate Carl, played by Bruce Dern, Zak finds himself on the lam in nothing more than his underpants. At first, it doesn’t seem like Zak will last long on his own, until he crosses paths with Tyler, a down on his luck fisherman played by Shia LaBeouf, who’s struggling with depression after the accidental death of his brother. Tyler has also gotten himself in hot water with a vicious fishing competitor played by John Hawkes. Teaming up with Tyler, Zak finally gets a chance at real independence as he discovers his alter ego, “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”   

The Peanut Butter Falcon star Zack Gottsagen had been studying acting since he was a boy, and met co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz at an acting camp for people with and without disabilities. When Gottsagen expressed his dream to become a movie star, Nilson and Schwartz decided to write an authentic lead role for him as an actor with Down Syndrome, rather than follow the conventional and dated approach of casting a non-Down Syndrome actor. Nilson and Schwartz also wanted to create a modern day “Huckleberry Finn” story with a full range of comedy, drama and adventure. Their script initially generated little interest, so Nilson and Schwartz produced a five minute “proof of concept” trailer to cultivate support for the project, and convincing their stars to participate. Their intuition paid off, as the film became one of the sleeper hits of 2019, receiving acclaim for its groundbreaking performance by Gottsagen and taking in $23 million at the box office to become the highest grossing indie of the year. While not nominated for any Academy Awards, Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen appeared together at the 2020 Oscars ceremony to present the award for Best Live Action Short Film.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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