The Fisher King (1991) – Gilliam’s Fairytale of New York…

The Fisher King is Terry Gilliam’s attempt at a “Simple” movie, made after the excesses of The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen.  Gilliam’s idea of simple may differ from other people’s.  There is a quest for the Holy Grail in a fairytale New York, and he turns Grand Central Station into a ballroom, but apart from that, it is a low-key, simple story about human relationships.

A successful, self-absorbed shock jock, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), is about to make the jump to TV sitcoms, when an unstable caller takes his callous on air comments literally.  The result is a bloodbath in a trendy Manhattan bar.

Three years later, Jack has gone off the rails, living above a grubby video shop with his brassy, big-hearted lover Anne (Mercedes Reuhl).  He wallows around in self-pity and booze.  He obsessively watches the sitcom that would have made him a star, which has become a huge hit without him.  One night, he goes over the edge and heads down to the river.  With bricks tied to his ankles, Jack prepares to end it all…

A group of louts mistake Jack for a homeless person, and give him a beating.  They are about to set him on fire when Parry (Robin Williams) intervenes, a chivalrous bum and his gang of crusading tramps.

Parry was once a teacher, but suffered a mental breakdown after his wife was blown away in the yuppie bar shootout years before.  Parry has two missions in life: to recover the Holy Grail, which he believes is hidden in a Fifth Avenue mansion, and to win the heart of a painfully shy, mousy office worker Lydia (Amanda Plummer).

There’s a lot going on in The Fisher King.  Working from Richard LaGravanese’s ambitious, witty and detailed script, Gilliam gives his four leads plenty of room to explore their characters and interact with each other in a series of lengthy, rewarding scenes.

Reuhl won an Oscar and Williams was nominated, but it is Jeff Bridges who makes the movie work.  Without his textured performance, encapsulating all Jack’s cynicism, broken dreams, self-loathing, and growing human warmth, it is likely Williams would have spun off into the stratosphere.

As Parry, Williams gives his usual motor-mouthed performance.  I’ve never met either a homeless person or a mentally traumatized individual who comes close to delivering so many one liners per minute, and in the early exchanges, Williams is pretty unbearable.  His routine worked well for me in Aladdin or Good Morning, Vietnam, but threatens to unsettle the whole film.

Thankfully he calms down, and benefits from Bridges’ presence.  Whenever Williams is about to bubble over again, Bridges is there to step in with a cynical aside or flabbergasted remark.  It is a crime that Bridges didn’t receive a nomination for the performance, while Williams, in the flashier role got the recognition.  Williams does strikes up some genuinely beguiling moments of awkwardness and poignancy later in the film, particularly in his scenes with Plummer.

Reuhl deserved her award as fiery, emotion video shop owner.  She generously lets Jack into her home and her heart, and gets nothing back in return, only bitterness.

Plummer appears to over-egg the quirkiness at first as the scrawny, suspicious, lonely Lydia, but she eventually warms to Parry’s unconventional courtship.

Gilliam is happy to trust his actors to explore the nuances of their characters.  He’s got other things on his mind, like turning New York into a fairytale kingdom.  Although he is working from someone else’s script, the themes suit Gilliam’s penchant for the mythic and fantastical perfectly.

Gilliam has been on Grail quests previously during his Monty Python days, and his elaborately disjointed Jabberwocky showed his affinity for medieval muck and squalor.

New York, the most cinematic of the world’s cities, transforms into a medieval kingdom well, a magical land of soaring castle towers, peasant hovels, mysterious woodlands and echoing urban caves.  The mansion containing the Grail is even crenelated, and a terrifying Red Knight stalks the traumatized Parry on his mighty horse, billowing smoke and flames.

Gilliam likes the underworld scenes in particular, which are nightmarish, intense and hallucinatory in tone.  Lots of low angles, freakish long shadows, leering close ups of ugly faces, and unhinged laughter echoing in the dark.

There are similar scenes in Twelve Monkeys, where Gilliam used his underworld scenes to generate some fiendish humour.  The effect in The Fisher King is deeply unsettling, and makes the homeless world seem deep beneath the earth compared to Jack’s former life in a high tower, or even Anne’s video shop.  “The Video Spot” seems like a little hut in the shadow of the castle walls.

The film wanders off in the last hour.  Terry Gilliam was never a director to let a story get in the way of an outrageous visual, and the final third stretches the patience somewhat.  Jack’s eventual embrace of Parry’s imaginary quest feels out of character, despite his own quest for redemption, and the story spirals into outright schmaltz towards the end.

Gilliam has suffered the same problems with pacing and organization in his previous films.  His retro-sci fi dystopia Brazil is one of the most audacious, outlandish, visionary and blackly funny films of all time. For the first hour, anyway.  The last half an hour is particularly hard on the eyes, ears and nerves until it is rescued by the brilliantly feelbad conclusion.

Despite its flaws, The Fisher King is a lovely film.  Gilliam described it as his “mature” film, and the fantasy elements work wonderfully with the very convincing adult relationships.

It is packed with wonderful moments, including Michael Jeter’s unconvincing drag queen belting out a show tune to a stunned office, and the film is grounded by substantial performances from Bridges and Reuhl.  If you can somehow filter the worst of Williams’ excesses, his yearning for Lydia is quite touching.  And the Grand Central waltz is one of the most shamelessly romantic moments in cinema.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 17/06/2012, in Entertainment, F, Fantasy, Film, Movies, Reviews, Romance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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