WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: DJ Jack Lucas commits professional suicide when his arrogance prompts an unhinged listener to a massacre in an upmarket New York eatery. A menial job and a relationship with long-suffering Anne is not enough to keep Jack going, but he’s rescued from his misery by down-and-out Parry, a man who should wish Jack dead but whose insane quest holds the keys to his salvation.
Callers to Jack Lucas’ (Jeff Bridges) New York radio show shouldn’t expect a cosy chat. Confrontation is more Jack’s style, and when regular caller Edwin calls in about a Yuppie woman he likes, the DJ’s harsh words result in Edwin shooting up a posh restaurant, killing seven innocent diners.
Three years later, Jack’s world couldn’t be more different: instead of the high-profile job, high-rise apartment and high-maintenance girlfriend, he’s drinking his life away in the flat above the Video Spot store run by unappreciated partner Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). At the end of a hard day’s drinking, Jack decides to end it all, but things go awry and he’s rescued from a vicious attack by the other-worldly Parry (Robin Williams).
Parry, homeless, is also apparently a few sandwiches short of a picnic, seeing gigantic, flame-throwing Red Knights on horseback, talking to fairies and intent on retrieving the Holy Grail from the imposing home of a billionaire, so it’s little wonder that Jack doesn’t exactly warm to him as a friend. However, Jack discovers that Parry’s wife was one of Edwin’s victims, tying their fates together and compelling the former DJ to help his unkempt and unpredictable saviour. With the help of Michael Jeter’s fey cabaret singer, Jack and Anne match-make Parry with lonely publishing worker Lydia (Amanda Plummer); though this good deed alone is not enough to cleanse his conscience.
I managed to get through my recent review of L.A. Story without using the term ‘magical realism’, but I don’t think it can be avoided in any evaluation of The Fisher King. The film presents a head-on clash between the bleak grittiness of Jack’s destructive self-pity (and its effects on those around him) and Parry’s escape from tragedy into an elaborate medieval fantasy; and while that could easily have resulted in a terrible mess, it in fact turns out a masterpiece, helped by the unbreakable connection between Jack and Parry formed in Richard LaGravenese’s clever, witty screenplay.
The appearance of the Red Knight in various New York locations is fascinating, but (for me) two scenes stand out: the first is the famous waltz at Grand Central Station, a beautiful visual metaphor for how Parry’s heart dances when he sees his muse; the second is Michael Jeter’s extraordinary performance of Everything’s Coming Up Videos to Lydia’s stunned colleagues. Dragged up to the nines (except for his ‘tache), Jeter’s voice, costume and demeanour are quite unique and, juxtaposed with the boring office, extremely funny.
Terry Gilliam’s films have always had a striking visual style (there are tropes here from Jabberwocky and things that would crop up again in Twelve Monkeys), but he’s not always had the stories (or budget) to match his vision. The Fisher King has no such problem, brilliantly melding together Jack’s difficult journey and Parry’s mental turmoil, uniting them with the overarching theme of the Fisher King whilst remaining accessible; Parry explains the myth in simple terms, and I particularly like how the sarcastic sitcom catchphrase ‘Forgive me!’ becomes a genuine plea for redemption.
Then, of course, there are two separate love stories in play: Lydia and Parry’s courtship is eccentric and comical, though not in a mocking way, while the refreshingly adult relationship that plays out between Jack and Anne gives equal prominence to both. In the capable hands of Bridges, Jack is an incredibly complex character, a charming bastard who can barely contain his self-confidence and self-loathing within the same body; and Oscar-winner Ruehl is just superb as Anne, fully fleshing out a character that could have been a blousy ‘tough broad’ stereotype.
If Robin Williams doesn’t quite hit Bridges’ heights – too much of Williams the comic pokes out of Parry’s outlandish clothes – he’s still very good when it matters, and plays well off Ruehl, Plummer, Bridges or whoever he’s with at the time. Plummer is funny and kooky, sympathetic and abrasive at the same time, and though I’ve already mentioned Jeter, I’ll say it again – he’s fabulous in the short time he’s given.
I won’t pretend that The Fisher King is flawless. Like most of Gilliam’s films, it goes on longer than it needs to; it’s also vaguely condescending about New York’s homeless, presenting them as happy-go-lucky crazies (except for Tom Waits’ pious beggar at Grand Central) as opposed to the soulless and empty rich. The conclusion is rather pat, too, the film drawing to a close abruptly with an ending that’s (almost literally) “With one bound, Jack was free”, sending everyone home redeemed, sane, loved and humming a showtune (what about the other six people Edwin kills? What about Jeter?). However, some movies deserve a super-happy ending, and I was touched by the realism of The Fisher King every bit as much as I was enthralled by its magic. How about you?