A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , ,

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