Historical Circuit: ‘The Fisher King’ Loses Some Magic Over Past 27 Years

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There’s an air of condescension when one looks back and dings a movie for not working by current modern day standards. Movies are very much products of their times and windows into the world of yesteryear. In fact, many movies age very well as their themes and point of view prove to be timeless. For every moment that shine in “The Fisher King,” Terry Gilliam’s 1991 fantasy drama romance, there’s another that falls flat. It’s a movie with a good heart at its center, but a lot of baggage.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) curses, shocks and enrages people on his popular talk radio station. This popularity comes to a crashing halt when one of his callers commits a mass shooting at a trendy Manhattan bar, killing multiple people including himself. Years later, Jack slumps around his girlfriend Anne’s (Mercedes Ruehl) video store and drinks himself into a constant stupor. One particular bender sends him to the river, about to commit suicide, when two thugs mistake him for a homeless person and attack him. He’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a crusading homeless man with dreams of finding the Holy Grail.

Robin Williams nabbed the Best Actor nod for his role as the mentally unstable but always energetic Parry. However, it’s Jeff Bridges’ performance as the melancholic former star Jack Lucas that rises to the top on a revisit. Bridges gets the more interesting arc. He uses his quest with Parry to get over demons of his own. Without giving too much away, the movie never lets Jack off easy. Instead, it finds inventive ways for him to confront the aspects of his personality that are most troubling. Bridges endears us to a man with very many problems within his basic personality. It’s a tricky role where the character to be damaged, but also be the straight man to Williams’ antics.

Bridges also acts well against Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl as his fiery girlfriend. The script writes Anne as a collection of eccentric girlfriend qualities that come off as quite lazy by today standards. However, Ruehl imbues Anne with more grace, fortitude and necessity that is on the page. She does this all while nailing her punchlines and dramatic moments. In many ways, the role on the surface looks like the template for a supporting actress performance. However, there is a bit more to give Ruehl credit for.

Perhaps the reason Williams works less is his character feels redundant in many scenes. The film repeats extended scenes of Parry doing odd things. He talks to imaginary people. He dances nude in Central Park. Yet, those moments don’t add new things to the character. The central thrust of the film follows Jack trying to get Parry a date with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a mousey accountant that Parry is infatuated with. Despite a cute date scene between them, its not apparent why Parry fixates on Lydia. In fact, it reeks of a screenwriting conceit where one outsider man decides he wants a specific woman and the rest of the movie bends towards giving him what he wants rather than developing her as a character. Lydia and Anne get one scene together to pass the Bechdel test and it suggests a much more lived in and fun film.

Evaluating “The Fisher King” in 2018 was strange in a variety of ways. The film starts with an abrasive radio jockey insulting and emasculating a lonely caller. The caller then walks into a popular nightclub and opens fire, killing many in attendance before himself. To its credit, “The Fisher King” uses this to make interesting points on the responsibility of the media and being in the spotlight. It even makes it clear to refer to the shooter as a terrorist. At a time where mass shootings have become commonplace and the coverage of the events are oftentimes problematic, it’s interesting to see a 1991 film nail some key phrases and points. Yet, this restraint gets thrown out the window later in the film as the shooting is depicted in graphic and frankly exploitative manner. It wants its reverence, but it also wants its shock and bloodlust.

This summarizes “The Fisher King” rather well. It steps right into some messy storytelling areas. It equips itself well for a while and shows that its heart is in the right place. Then it tips from fascinating into fetishization in a way that is frankly uncomfortable. Richard LaGravenese’s script sees Parry and his homeless friends as misunderstood eccentrics to both enjoy and laugh at. Director Terry Gilliam takes this further and uses the camera to accentuate the things he finds hilarious and grotesque. It appears Gilliam thinks it’s an old-timey “Greatest Showman” esque “freak show” with a morality play surrounding it. The relationship between Jack and Perry feels lived in and interesting in ways that are pretty novel. Yet, the movie’s relationship to the themes of mental illness, mass shooting and homelessness are clumsier. 

GRADE: (★★1/2)