Film: The Fisher King
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Jeff Bridges as Jack
Robin Williams as Parry
It is the month of May, which means that we are approaching the one-year anniversary of the death of Robin Williams, one of the most talented and hilarious comedians of both stage and screen. Known for his versatility and brilliant improvisations, Williams tragically committed suicide on August 11th, 2014. I have cherished (and will continue to do so for years to come) many of his films targeted towards families, including Aladdin, Jumanji, Night at the Museum and Mrs. Doubtfire. Williams breathed life into these films, providing energy and entertainment for children without ever condescending them. However, shortly after he passed away, I realized that I had only made a slight dent in his diverse filmography. I started to obsessively watch his films with higher ratings, including Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting and the unsettling One Hour Photo. Several months later, I came across one film on his IMDB page that I had never heard of before: The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam in 1991. Interested in the website’s synopsis, I decided to rent it from my library (and no, I still don't have a Netflix account). Upon viewing the film, I grew fascinated by it is simultaneous creatively inspired concept and overstuffed, messy execution.
The film’s flawed protagonist is Jack Lucas, a blue-collar radio jock played by Jeff Bridges. One evening, he insults an audience member on air to the point where he commits mass-murder (and ultimately kills himself) at a restaurant. As a result, Jack is wracked with guilt and becomes depressed and suicidal. Several years later, he is saved from a group of murderous muggers by Parry, a schizophrenic homeless man played by Robin Williams. As Parry and Jack develop a reluctant friendship, Jack discovers that Parry’s wife was a victim of the murder that he inadvertently caused. Throughout the film, Jack attempts to redeem himself through acts of kindness, including taking care of and finding a date (played by Amanda Plummer) for Parry.
This film has several commendable elements, particularly its performances. Jeff Bridges adds a level of nuance to Jack, who on paper seems like a one-dimensional character. Bridges allows the audience to empathize with the misanthropic, often inebriated Jack, and maintains a consistently subtle performance. In addition, he has charming chemistry with his romantic interest played by Mercedes Ruehl. Both Bridges and Ruehl have a camaraderie that makes them watchable, despite Ruehl’s irritating Queens drawl. Robin Williams is wonderfully whimsical as Parry, and contributes a devoted dramatic performance along with his well-improvised humor. He makes Parry a compelling and intriguing character, and one cannot help but chuckle at his loud, childlike antics. Films like these often have humorous side characters, and The Fisher King is no exception. The late Michael Jeter, known for playing Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street from 2000 to 2003, is hilarious and oddly endearing as a homeless man gleefully obsessed with Cabaret singing. Jeter, like Williams, was a highly creative comedian and actor, and seamlessly blended loud routines with shadows of depth. Amanda Plummer is equally absorbing as Parry’s withdrawn and awkward love interest Lydia. Although Lydia masks her insecurities with a waspish authority, Plummer makes Lydia a likeable character. In addition, she has charismatic chemistry with Williams, as Parry slavishly adores the reclusive Lydia.
Another one of The Fisher King’s highlights is its visual style. Nearly every scene contains beautiful, extravagant and intricate set-pieces. An instance of this is a scene where Parry shows Jack his “home” in the run-down boiler room of his former apartment building. We see Parry’s collection of various objects, including books, tools, papers, and miscellaneous trinkets. They are all arranged in in an almost aggressively unrealistic (as we know that most homeless men do not poetically store their significant possessions in pre-arranged piles) way. However, as the entire movie maintains a fantastical and slightly surreal tone, sets like these work in The Fisher King’s favor. Another element of the film’s visual style I adore is its inventive imagery. For example, throughout the movie, Parry’s depression and repressed memories of his wife dying before his eyes manifest themselves in the form of a terrifying red knight, chasing him around New York City. This is because Parry adores the eponymous Fisher King, an Arthurian legend centered around the protection and use of the Holy Grail as a lifesaving device. Parry, through his delusions, believes that this mythical tale is real, and sees himself as the man who will find the Grail. Utilizing the legend of the Fisher King as a framing device is a creative idea, and adds a level of mysticism to the film.
Unfortunately, The Fisher King is not without flaws. The film’s direction is, simply put, uneven--as I have mentioned before, Terry Gilliam, known for directing Brazil and being a member of the Monty Python troupe, effectively directs his actors to enthralling and distinct performances. The aforementioned sets and visual style, though highly idealized, suit the film’s eccentric tone. However, The Fisher King has a running time of two hours and seventeen minutes, which could easily have been shortened to a hundred minutes. Often, it seems as though the film is stalling. Much like Parry and his outrageous and unfocused delusions, this movie invents twists and turns in the form of subplots that only succeed in aggravating audience members. Other times, The Fisher Kingspends too long on segments that are either never referenced again or glanced over for later development (an example of this is a scene where Michael Jeter’s cabaret singer belts out a musical number in a quiet office space and is thrown out). Another flaw in The Fisher King is its lack of pacing. At certain points, the film moves quickly from scene to scene, while at others, scenes drag for several minutes too long, and the characters act absurd for the sake of prolonging such scenes. This often results in jarring tonal (from cloying silly to brutally dark) as well as pacing shifts, and makes for an occasionally uncomfortable viewing experience.
The Fisher King is a film that is far from perfect. It is overlong, middling and occasionally suffers from a lack of consistent pacing. However, its stunning performances from a spectacular cast (particularly Robin Williams), gorgeous imagery and set-pieces more than make up for its problematic elements.
And Robin? We ain’t never had a friend like you.