A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 199 – The Fisher King

The Fisher King – September 15th, 2010

You know, I really like Robin Williams but I hate his career. It’s so deceptive. For every movie like this, he’s got a Runaway Vacation or Hook (okay, so that’s got some nostalgia value for me, but I don’t deny for a second that it’s a bad movie). It’s like a sine wave. Great peaks, horrible valleys. Andy showed me this particular peak early in our relationship and while I admit there are some specifics I’m not super thrilled with, overall I love it. Much like Robin Williams’ movies. There are some clinkers, and then there are some gems, and it’s the gems that make me love his work.

While this movie certainly has some fantastical elements to it, I think I’ve got to very tentatively put it down as magical realism. I say tentatively because it’s not made clear in the movie how much of the fantastical element is due to mental illness and how much isn’t. Which, I believe, was intentional. Williams plays Parry, a mentally ill man who’s about a step up from homeless (his former landlord lets him live in the building basement, but he spends most of his time out on the streets with other homeless people) and is obsessed with the legends of the Holy Grail. He’s tormented by visions of a red knight on horseback who appears and chases him. He believes it’s his mission, his quest, to find the Grail. Which is in the home of a wealthy man who lives in a modern castle on 5th Avenue. He’s also obsessed with a young woman named Lydia, whom he’s been watching for ages. Long enough to know every moment of her daily routine.

Okay folks, say it with me: Stalking is not romantic. I’d like to make that clear at the outset. Sure, it seems all cute when Parry follows Lydia and knows her every move. And it’s nice that he says it’s “not like that”. But stalking is not romantic. Seriously. Ew. That’s one of my problems with the movie. I wish there’d been some other way to set up the Parry and Lydia plot. But the Parry and Lydia plot figures quite heavily into the rest of the movie. It’s frustrating, because I like Lydia. I like Amanda Plummer’s performance of Lydia. I like how looking at her one could pigeon-hole her but once she starts talking she’s not who she looks like. I like her eventual date with Parry and I like how she sticks by him because even though he totally stalked her, this is movie land where stalking can totally be romantic (really, it’s not, and it’s taking a lot of effort on my part to let that go at all here) and while Parry might have been a raunchy ass to the other female lead, Anne, he was nothing but a gentleman to Lydia. So really, why couldn’t there have been a non-stalkery way to bring her into things?

Lydia’s even the impetus for one of the most indelible scenes in my mind. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a former radio shock jock modeled after Howard Stern, who lost his career and ended up a heavy drinker avoiding work in his girlfriend Anne’s video store. Jack is indirectly responsible for how Parry’s living now and once they meet feels like he has to help Parry somehow. After giving him money proves utterly useless, he resolves to help Parry meet and go on a date with Lydia. And while Lydia-watching together, Parry and Jack are present when everyone in Grand Central Station spontaneously begins to waltz. This is what I mean about being unsure what’s in Parry’s imagination and what’s actually happening but fantastical. It’s an amazing scene and reminds me of something I witnessed once in Park Street Station in Boston. A group of musicians was playing some 40s style swing music and the trains were running late and an older couple on the middle platform started to dance. Some kids beside us started soon after them. And I maintain that more would have joined if a train hadn’t come through. So was it real? Did Parry imagine it? Or did it happen? We don’t know. We don’t need to know.

So the whole Lydia thing bothers me, because I love the character and all, and I love many of her scenes, but yeah. Stalking. Anyhow, it brings up my other problem with the movie, which is really part of the same thing. It’s Parry. Now, I think overall he’s a great character and Wiliams plays him incredibly well, but his actions towards women are bizarre. He’s utterly vulgar to Anne, and while Anne’s a tough lady and can certainly handle herself (I will get to the awesome that is Anne in a moment), contrasting the Parry who stands on a table and tells her he’s going to take out his penis with the Parry who very tenderly explains to Lydia that he certainly wasn’t going to invite himself up to her apartment on the first date and yes, he will call her? Leaves me kind of feeling icky. I suppose it’s part of the character, that he sees Lydia as this unattainable ideal and Anne’s just not on his radar as someone he needs to respect. But while I can respect that as a choice made for the overall character, I don’t have to like that particular aspect of him.

I think the problem for me is that it ends up making me examine the women in the movie more, and while I do love both of them, there’s certainly a virgin and whore dichotomy going on, and it saddens me to realize that. I hadn’t really noted it when I first watched the movie, so it was an unpleasant thing to come upon here. That being said, I do believe Anne is presented in a mostly positive manner. Jack treats her like crap, sure, but she doesn’t hold back and well, people do indeed put up with a lot of crap when they love someone. Mercedes Ruehl plays her magnificently, showing her tough and hurt at the same time. She knows Jack’s got problems and somewhere inside, she knows she can’t fix them, but she loves him and so she sticks by him and hopes something works out. And when it doesn’t? Well, she’s pretty clear about not taking his shit anymore. I love Anne. I love her every line. I love every moment of her performance. I can imagine her toughness coming off as more of an act and it doesn’t with Ruehl playing her. It’s no act. It’s who she is. She makes the virgin and whore thing not matter so much because Ruehl refuses to let Anne be a victim or a bad guy.

All four leads are amazing, really. Bridges has some really impressive moments of desperation as Jack. Williams is about as on as he gets as Parry, playing every moment as if he truly is the man we see. I’ve made it clear what I think of Ruehl as Anne, and she nabbed an Oscar for it so I think it’s safe to say other people liked what they saw her do too. And Plummer as Lydia builds this wonderfully quirky character without having a single line until she’s several scenes in. Combine that with some scenes like the waltz in Grand Central, the big date and Parry’s initial appearance, rescuing Jack? And you have a bizarre movie, flawed in a few places but mostly just an epic quest for salvation, love and the Holy Grail in New York City. And that’s a wonderful thing.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Fisher King

September 15, 2010

The Fisher King

By the time this movie came out in the theaters I was well and truly caught up in the worlds and madness of Terry Gilliam. I had been twisted by Time Bandits in my childhood. I had consumed Brazil (on home video – I was never subjected to any of the bastardised studio cuts in the theater.) I went to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the theater on opening night. So naturally when I heard he had another movie coming out I was filled with anticipation. I did see it a few times in the theater, and I was perplexed by it. It has moments of strangeness that are pure Gilliam, but it is also a very non-Gilliam movie in many ways.

The movie tells the story of Jack, a successful morning DJ whose life falls apart when a lunatic takes some off the cuff remarks on his show as inspiration to go on a killing spree. Three years later he is a washed up alcoholic nobody living with his long-suffering girlfriend Anne above the video store she owns. He hates people (and who in retail doesn’t really?) and most of all he hates himself. On one particularly bad drunken bender he wanders through the streets of New York and is set upon by a pair of thugs – but is rescued by a crazy homeless man who thinks he’s a knight errant. This man, who calls himself Parry, once had a successful career as a professor of classics until his wife was killed during the same incident that Jack blames himself for. Now Parry is obsessed with two things: obtaining the Holy Grail, which he believes is in the swanky uptown apartment of a billionaire, and this mousy office girl names Lydia who he’s been stalking.

Jack gets sucked into the strange and unsettling world of the New York homeless. He discovers what is sort of a parallel world of the ignored and the invisible. The crazy and the dispossessed. Ultimately the movie is the story of how Jack tries to redeem himself for his shallow past and how Parry rescues him from himself. There are points where you do feel like Jack might be irredeemable and perhaps not even worthy of redemption. But ultimately it’s an upbeat film with a satisfyingly happy ending.

As I said, the movie puzzled me back in 1991 when I saw it because I was used to a certain thing from a Gilliam film. I was used to his sort of flare for the fantasy worlds that his characters escape into. That’s pretty much the theme of the Time Bandits/Brazil/Muchausen trilogy – the intersection of fantasy with reality. It’s present here in this film as well, but there’s much less emphasis on it. I attribute this primarily to the fact that Gilliam did not actually write this move. The Fisher King was written by Richard LaGravenese (who also wrote my favorite Christmas movie of all time – but it’s a couple months yet before we start on those.) There are some very identifiably Gilliam touches to the movie – most notably for me the set for Jack’s radio studio, which is a kind of inverted pyramid lit like a prison cell, and of course the Red Knight. The Red Knight is the manifestation of Parry’s mental illness – the warning sign of a psychotic break. And he’s realized as this towering figure draped in red rags on an enormous horse surrounded by smoke and fire and always filmed in slow motion. It’s a menacing and fantastic thing – and more than anything else in the movie is clearly something ripped right out of Terry Gilliam’s psyche.

But the movie isn’t really about madness. It’s not Parry’s story so much as it is Jack’s story. So it’s about the sins of hubris and pride, and how he can find some way back to being a human being. If he ever was one. That doesn’t seem like typical Gilliam fodder, so it’s interresting to see how he handles the material. And the way he set out to handle it, or so it would appear, is to gather together an absolutely astonishingly stellar cast of serious actors and unleash them upon each other.

This movie is a triumph, and it is because it is a powerful character driven drama fueled by a bunch of absolutely astonishing performances. Jeff Bridges as Jack is wonderfully callow and self-obsessed, but he’s also able to show a caring heart underneath all that bullshit. Robin Williams is given free reign as Parry to be as outrageous as he wants to be. I sometimes in the movie get the impression that he’s not so much playing a part as simply allowing his own impish nature to escape. But then again, he has moments of touching pain and timidness, and even romance. I absolutely love Amanda Plumber’s performance as Parry’s love interest Lydia. She’s played almost entirely for laughs with her bumbling pratfalls (so much so that we had to rewind the movie at one point because I was missing bits of action because I was distracted by her hilarious facial expressions) which makes it all the more touching when she’s allowed to be more serious and show us Lydia’s lonely soul. And then there’s the absolutely best performance in the movie by Mercedes Ruehl as Anne. She imbues Anne with such spirit, such life, and such character that she steals every scene she’s in. It’s a hard thing to steal a scene when you’re performing with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, but she pulls it off with wonderful panache. You do have to wonder why she is so hung up on Jack when he’s such a cad, but that’s just one of the mysteries of the movie.

It’s been a few years since I last watched this, so it was a lot of fun to see it again tonight. There were parts I knew by heart and looked forward to seeing again. There were parts that I had completely forgotten somehow and which were a delight to discover again (such as the waltz in Grand Central Station – how could I have forgotten that??) Ultimately it was a thrill to see this after becoming more familiar with later Gilliam films such as Fear and Loathing in as Vegas and 12 Monkeys. It’s fun to see him taking these first steps out of the comfort zone of his own imagination and into new and more challenging worlds. It makes me crave more.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment