Apart from Terry Gilliam, the most creatively productive Monty Python member in a non-Python setting has to be John Cleese, who masterminded the '70s TV series Fawlty Towers and the 1988 comedy A Fish Called Wanda. The latter was especially sweet: It was a cult hit that broke beyond its intended cult. On the commentary track of the new double-disc A Fish Called Wanda DVD, Cleese marvels at his luck. The original intent was to make an homage to Ealing Studios caper comedies (with Ealing veteran Charles Crichton at the helm), but once Cleese cast the canny Jamie Lee Curtis and the fleet Kevin Kline as ruthless American crooks out to con diamond-heister Tom Georgeson, the movie's nature changed. A wacky farce about double-crossing and outsmarting became an affectionate, blackly comic study of the differences between Americans and the British.

Cleese's commentary deftly explains what Crichton does so well with A Fish Called Wanda, particularly the way the director lets scenes play out with a minimum of cutting and only a few economical camera moves, so the actors can build a comic rhythm. But Cleese gives himself credit too, for letting Kline and his old Python buddy Michael Palin (playing a stuttering, animal-loving hit man) re-work their dialogue in rehearsal. The ensemble ping-pongs off Cleese, the straight man, who plays a beaten-down barrister assigned to defend Georgeson, while fending off Curtis' deceptive sexual advances. Then Cleese gets smitten with Curtis, and sees a chance to throw off the confines of his proper, sexless British marriage and enjoy some American recklessness.


A Fish Called Wanda winds up being a very personal film for Cleese, and not just because he cast his daughter in a key role (as his daughter, appropriately enough), and allowed himself to give the sweetest, fullest performance of his acting career. For all its dead dogs, swallowed fish, misquoted philosophy, and accidental nudity, A Fish Called Wanda is really about how Cleese admires the endless inventiveness and bravado of the Yanks.

Key features: The Cleese commentary, plus deleted scenes and multiple old and new making-of featurettes.