Occidental Graduate Terry Gilliam Serves Up a Royal Treat with The Fisher King
Originally published in The Occidental newspaper, September 27, 1991
[Full-disclosure: at the time, I thought Terry Gilliam had graduated from Occidental College, when, in actuality, he only attended but never graduated]
It looks like the eighties have finally caught up with us. Director an Oxy-grad Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King is the latest in a line of recent philosophical films where characters purge themselves of their eighties ideas and delve into nineties values of selflessness and rediscovery.
Gilliam, whose past works include Monty Python films and the highly acclaimed Brazil, puts together a masterpiece of a film The Fisher King starring Jeff Bridges (Fabulous Baker Boys) and the improvisational genius Robin Williams (Awakenings, Dead Poets Society). Unlike the previous sin-redemption, soul-discovery films of the year, such as Regarding Henry, The Doctor and even Terminator 2, The Fisher King delivers its message with a punch, not a whimper.
The story revolves around New York City talk radio star Jack Lucas (played by Bridges), a Howard Stern-type character with an anger aimed at society. A self-proclaimed people-hater, Jack routinely indulges himself in long monologues on how to rid the world of “undesirables.” When one of Jack’s unstable listeners takes some of Jack’s off-hand advice to heart, tragedy results and Jack goes off the deep end, losing his self-esteem and lust for life.
Three years later, when he reaches rock-bottom, he stumbles across Parry, played by the effervescent Robin Williams. Parry is a street person whose life has been ruined by the same tragedy that Jack had provoked. What ensues is an alluring tale about love, friendship and the pursuit of happiness.
Gilliam is a fantasy-oriented director, with past credits such as Time Bandits and Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and although this film is based in reality, its mythical elements are what holds it together. Fantasy comes from Parry’s world—a world of dragons and knights, quests and maidens.
This film takes us on a guided tour of what can happen to the human mind when unbelievable tragedy strikes. Parry lives in a catatonic state—a state which creates his fantastic dream world. From his ramblings about the search for the Holy Grail, which ihe is convinced sits in a Manhattan millionaire’s library, to his naked moonlit romps in Central Park, Parry is every bit the adorable eccentric.
When the cynical, selfish Jack meets the fantastic dreamer Parry, Jack’s life is affected irreveribly. Of course, Jack has selfish motives in the beginning. He wants to expiate his past sins by helping Parry, so he gives him money. But Parry, whose needs and cares transcend mere material goods, gives the money away, thereby forcing Jack to pursue altruism, the only path to redemption.
Jeff Bridges shows unusual strength in this film. I never gave him much credit as a screen presence, but he fits the bill here, playing the self-centered cynic powerfully. The supporting cast is also superb, with wondeful performances by Amanda Plummer as Parry’s love interest, Mercedes Ruehl as Jack’s girlfriend and a screen-stealing turn by television’s Evening Shade’s Michael Jeter.
A real Oscar contender here is Williams, an actor who transcends all boundaries. No toher actor could have brought together all the elements of humor, pathos and tragedy. His electrifying performance takes his character on a roller coaster ride through humor to tragedy and back again.
Beginning darkly but creeping up and down in intensity level, Gilliam’s direction manipulates the tone, which shifts subtly and constantly throughout the tale. And yet there is a shift that is so sudden and jolting that my stomach was queasy from the plunge into darkness just when things seemed to be wrapping up. It is a stunning shift in tone and is carried off with elegance by Williams.
This is not a movie about pity for the homeless—it is about the fantasy of life, the tragedies of life, and of surviving, no matter what it takes.
This film also has no labels. It’s not a buddy film, as it may seem. Yet at the same time it is neither a comedy nor a drama. It’s fantasy-riddled, but it’s also wholly realistic. It’s not a tender film, because it graphically portrays the seemy underbelly of life. Instead, The Fisher King is a self-styled piece of film-making with a life of its own.
The only drawbacks are the length (2 and a half hours) and the music. At times the loud, complex musical score dominates the subtle screen action, distracting us when it should enhance the mood.
Overall, the film is enormously powerful, and by far the best of the “redemption” movies I’ve seen. Robin Williams’ performance is his best. And there are images from this which will never leave me.
In the end, The Fisher King packs a punch and leaves an aftertaste.