The Fisher King
First screened in Spring 1992 / Reviewed in 1998 or 1999 / Most recently screened in August 2016
Director: Terry Gilliam. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer, Michael Jeter, David Hyde Pierce, Lara Harris, Lisa Blades, Jayce Bartok, Dan Futterman, Bradley Gregg, William Jay Marshall, William Preston, Tom Waits, Adam Bryant, Paul Lombardi, Ted Ross, Christian Clemenson, Kathy Najimy, Harry Shearer, Chris Howell, Richard LaGravenese. Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese.

Twitter Capsule: If movies were less timid and Gilliam more reliable, I'd crave a less messy film. As things are, it hits the spot.

VOR:   From premise to script to mise-en-scène to performance idioms to sound to score to visual effects, the movie takes unending risks. Results are uneven but ambition undeniable.

Photo © 1991 TriStar Pictures
Brave in its ambitions but unable to sustain its energy, director Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King is a good film that could have been, but isn't, a very good one. Certainly Richard LaGravenese's script earns the tag of "originality" both in its specific conception for the screen and for its own wild, loopy creativity. Gilliam and LaGravenese have conceived of a picture that is simultaneously an offbeat romance, a Grail quest, a bleeding-heart yuppie epiphany, and an unbridled comedy of stylistic excess. Surprisingly, The Fisher King's ultimate problem is not that these divergent goals stumble awkwardly into one another; almost everyone involved works admirably to negotiate the entire range of tones suggested in the writing. On the contrary, alternate moments of comedy, tenderness, and mystery keep arriving but settle disappointingly into a mechanical groove that deflates the buoyant adventurousness of the first hour and a half.

The film opens with a radio show by Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a shock-jock who cannot decide if he should direct his genial but unmistakable cynicism at his specific listeners or at society in general. Settling for a regimen of sarcasm and unmodulated flippancy, Jack unwittingly incites one repeat caller to bring a rifle into a New York City restaurant and shoot seven of the patrons, then himself. The incident saddens Jack both on the obvious personal level of having possibly incited such a crime and in the more selfish sense that it transpires just as he planned to audition for a potentially big-money sitcom role. This mix of noble emotions and self-indulgence emblematize the broad tonal range of The Fisher King, which bravely opts for uneasy mixes of comedy, drama, and pathos rather than following the easier route of partitioning all the laughs into some scenes and all the hurt into others.

LaGravenese's script jumps forward three years, and we find Jack living as a barnacle off of his girlfriend, Anne, played by Mercedes Ruehl in an Oscar-winning performance of such rigor and clever eccentricity that she makes the no-guff, big-hearted, big-breasted girlfriend seem far less like the mothballed cliché it actually is. "I do not neeeed this," Anne apostrophizes to Jack one evening when he, typically it seems, has not come home for dinner, and yet Anne keeps "sitting around and cooking like a jerk." Her anger is well-warranted, but during that particular week, Jack's nighttime absences are anything but planned; certainly they are not the amorous cavorts which Anne speculates that they are. Rather, one night finds him with cinderblocks tied to his boots, ready to jump into the Hudson River, when a trio of street thugs mug and beat him until help arrives in the form of an army of hoboes led by Perry (Robin Williams), a loony bird in a large brown smock with the good fortune to have the jaunty comic spirit of Robin Williams. The next night, Jack seeks Perry out to thank him for the rescue and to give him the fifty dollars he hopes will assuage his liberal guilt at having so long ignored the homeless who just saved his life.

The plot of The Fisher King is too strange to elaborate much further without ruining the momentum of the film, a misdeed that Gilliam himself commits about twenty minutes before the movie's conclusion. Even before that point some aspects of the film, particularly Williams' jolly/sad character, play too much like a screenwriter's idea of distilled outrageousness for us to really care about; still, the film's oddball humor, nervous characters, and adventurous set design keep the project rolling on its own bizarre momentum. Suddenly, though, The Fisher King settles for a mawkish coma subplot and, even more disappointingly, makes its own characters cursory to the action.

Much of the film's middle hour, for example, is devoted to Jack and Anne's project to play match-maker for Perry and Lydia (Amanda Plummer), the mousy office-worker he has watched for months from the street. The courtship between the two is a little too forced, but the actors, like the movie, are charming enough in their weirdness to pull the scenes off. Then, though, when the romance has been established, Gilliam seems to lose all interest in it, and we only see Plummer about three more times, two of those in long-shot. Bigger, more expensive movies typically discard cast members like this, but a film like The Fisher King whose appeal depends on its characters can hardly afford to neglect them so. Gilliam and LaGravenese also attempt to find some suspense in a heist sequence involving Bridges' character, but that particular event has been foreshadowed so deliberately and its outcome is so predictable that the whole sequence seems expendable and indulgent.

Kudos to Jeff Bridges for keeping Jack Lucas an involving character and negotiating both his appealing moments and his scabrous ones to create a convincing central character. This is one of those performances that Bridges fans can cite as worthy evidence that he is a grossly unappreciated talent; that Williams scored an Oscar nod and a Golden Globe for The Fisher King and Bridges did not is in turn an unrebukable critique of the scales of showmanship and flamboyance by which the voters for those awards often appear to weigh their selections. Not that flamboyance is always such a bad thing, and while its energy level remains high, The Fisher King's florid acting and lavish visuals provide the wild ride we expect from Gilliam, a former member of the Monty Python troupe. But flamboyance on autopilot is one of the most dispiriting tones a film can adopt, and by the end of The Fisher King, the picture is a pretty dry well. Grade: B

(in 1998 or 1999, when this review was written: B–)

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor: Robin Williams
Best Supporting Actress: Mercedes Ruehl
Best Original Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese
Best Art Direction: Mel Bourne; Cindy Carr
Best Original Score: George Fenton

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Terry Gilliam
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Jeff Bridges
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Robin Williams
Best Supporting Actress: Mercedes Ruehl

Other Awards:
Toronto International Film Festival: People's Choice Award
Venice Film Festival: Best Director (tie); Little Golden Lion
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Ruehl)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Ruehl)
Chicago Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Ruehl)

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