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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 14.29%
Average: 3.17%
Pretty Bad: 6.35%
Total Crap: 6.35%

3 reviews, 45 user ratings

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Fisher King, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Gilliam's misunderstood masterwork."
5 stars

Of all Terry Gilliam's films -- the great ("Brazil"), the obscure ("Jabberwocky"), the mainstream ("12 Monkeys"), the difficult ("The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"), the fanciful ("Time Bandits"), the hallucinatory ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), the hilarious (any of his Monty Python work) -- none is as much in need of an image rehab as "The Fisher King."

The reason is simple: Otherwise reasonable Gilliam fans treat it as the red-headed stepchild of his filmography, the movie wherein, smarting from his back-to-back studio beatings on Brazil and Munchausen, he sold out and made a touchy-feely story about love and friendship. Gilliam just can't seem to catch a break: Other directors (David Lynch with The Straight Story, to name one) are lauded for going against their own grain. But it has become fashionable, especially post-Patch Adams, to sneer at this earlier film in which Robin Williams harnesses his manic style into a dramatic performance.

The unabashedly romantic Fisher King -- which even, for Christ's sake, has not one, not two, but three happy endings -- may thus be read as Gilliam's sign of penitence, his assurance to the studios that he can be a Good Boy. Don't buy it. For this is as much a Gilliam film as anything that originated in his cynical, paranoid mind. Richard LaGravenese's script could've been emblazoned "Property of Terry Gilliam" -- all the themes are there: delusion, escape from ugly reality into flights of fantasy, redemption, obsession with the past (specifically, here, the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King and all the parallels it allows). It's Gilliam's most relaxed and heartfelt filmmaking, with a new respect for human frailty and actors' moments; no other Gilliam film offers such across-the-board fine performances (and yes, Robin-bashers, that includes Williams). Just watch it again, damn it, will you?

Jeff Bridges, his stringy brown hair tied back carelessly, is such a ringer for latter-day Gilliam that we could be excused for taking his character, jaded DJ Jack Lucas, as a wounded man looking for a path out of cynicism, much like Gilliam. Not so much a shock-jock as a growling Eric Bogosian pundit who shits on everything while on-air sycophants provide sound-effect validation, Jack slouches in the dark studio and grumbles that yuppies aren't human. He doesn't go so far as to say they should all be shot, but that's what an unhinged caller (Christian Clemenson) hears and responds to; the caller goes on a shotgun spree at a trendy Manhattan restaurant that leaves seven dead before he turns the gun on himself. The media, of course, links the murders to Jack's show, complete with a photo of Jack looking maniacal.

Disgraced and despairing, Jack falls into alcoholic squalor, which is where we pick him up three years later. Living uneasily with girlfriend Anne Napolitano (Mercedes Ruehl) and occasionally working for her at her video store, Jack gets bitterly drunk in front of the TV watching another guy (Harry Shearer in an amusing cameo) headline the idiotic sitcom Jack was in line to star in pre-downfall. One particularly hard night finds him on the waterfront, his ankles tied to weights as he contemplates oblivion; two young punks almost make his decision for him, but he's saved by a homeless crackpot who calls himself Parry (Williams). Parry is on a medieval trip -- he thinks the Holy Grail resides in a billionaire's study in New York, and his "quest" is to recover it.

Give LaGravenese's script credit for avoiding cheesiness in at least one area: he furnishes what would be a lesser movie's climactic revelation -- that among the doomed diners massacred by Jack's deranged caller was Parry's wife -- in the film's first half hour. Thus we understand why Jack, still more or less a selfish and appalling son of a bitch even after years of humility, feels obligated to help Parry in his "quest." Part of the quest involves setting Parry up with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a woman he loves from afar. What could've been sappy -- let's get the crazy, widowed homeless guy a date! -- comes across instead as spiky and original. Partly it's because LaGravenese, who also wrote and directed the superb Living Out Loud, is the rare male writer who knows how to write women; the result is that Anne and Lydia are the first real, living, breathing women in a Gilliam film. When Jack and Anne take Parry and Lydia out on a double date at a Chinese restaurant, Parry's awkwardness mirrors Lydia's, and when he starts singing "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" it's just about the funkiest romantic riff you've ever seen. So is an earlier sequence in which Parry spots Lydia in Grand Central Station and the bustling passengers around him segue into a collective waltz, as if infected en masse by the intensity of his feelings.

The Fisher King is not all sweetness and light. Gilliam allows the homeless their dignity without falsely ennobling them (there's a sharp late scene in which Jack hears an absurd sitcom pitch involving "wacky, wise homeless people"). He floats on the romance of New York City while fully acknowledging its underbelly: when Parry winds up in an institution, we hear about Parry's bedclothes being dirtied when a doctor was careless with a hypo, and a dazed man sits on his cot bleeding from the head and unattended -- this is what happens to the mentally ill poor of the city. Parry's blissful date with Lydia (which contains a couple of vintage LaGravenese arias of self-hatred from her and gentle reassurance from him) is followed quickly by his mind-bending encounter with the Red Knight, a hulking flame-throwing creature that symbolizes the excruciating past he's trying to escape. We see Parry's tragedy in flashback; Gilliam is on his game here, and the horror is worth escaping from. It is one of the most devastating visions of sudden, violent loss in any film.

People like to caricature The Fisher King because it features Robin Williams dancing naked in Central Park. But this isn't one of his puckish Holy Fool performances (if anything, it's Jack who plays the fool here). Parry is crazy, with moments of lucidity. Even when the Red Knight doesn't manifest itself, Parry always seems to be running from it in his head, fleeing into the comforts of delusion. And he's hardly a saint -- he ogles Anne's cleavage (and frantically hits on her; we can see that it's just his long-suppressed libido coming back) and admits to Lydia that he has "a hard-on the size of Florida" for her. Williams refuses to make Parry cute; he's realistically jagged and smelly. Amanda Plummer, too, goes beyond what Lydia would've been in a routine film -- a mousy, nice young woman. Lydia isn't nice; her loneliness has given her temperament a sharp edge. Jeff Bridges plays the straight man much of the time, doing his usual remarkable, effortless-looking bits of business: a twitch when he sees the newscast about the yuppie massacre, repeated later when he hears the moronic sitcom proposal; organic shifts in mood from misery to resignation to decency, signalled with nothing more than a change in posture.

But it's Mercedes Ruehl who owns the movie, truly. Justifiably awarded an Oscar for her work here, Ruehl is the soul of the ideal New York: an irritable voice of sanity. Anne is entirely her own creation, as quirkily individual as the self-loathing DJ or the homeless madman; this is one woman who isn't going to take a narrative backseat as The Girlfriend (and the way LaGravenese writes Anne and the way Ruehl plays her should serve as templates for anyone trying to get honest, complicated femalehood onto the screen). You know how you so seldom believe in love between two characters because you don't know why they're together other than the dictation of the plot? Ruehl gives you that understanding just by the way Anne talks to Jack, how her body is when he's around, how she gets pissed off at him but still supports him wholeheartedly -- up to a point. When things are finally going right for Jack and he (idiotically) tells Anne he doesn't know if he loves her, Ruehl goes through the five stages of denial in about a minute, starting with a disbelieving grin and snort. She's a formidable woman, played by a formidable actress who has deserved much, much better than the tripe she's been handed since winning the Oscar for this.

If Gilliam had done nothing else right in "The Fisher King," he could at least have patted himself on the back for giving us Anne Napolitano. If you want to take the emotional temperature of this odd and challenging movie at any given moment, just look at Mercedes Ruehl.

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originally posted: 12/25/06 07:06:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/12/18 Amme I lasted about 30 minutes... 2 stars
11/06/17 FireWithFire Wrong terry: the insane are not saner than the sane.You're one-sided. The '60s are OVER!!!! 1 stars
6/21/15 dr. lao If you only see one Robin Williams movie, make it this one 5 stars
8/26/14 FireWithFire Only in Gilliam's CHILDISH ,whiny,preachy imagination are the insane saner than normals 1 stars
8/15/14 john B Raw, incredible, credible, gutsy, multilevelled 5 stars
4/12/11 Dakota Bruce Go Ecstasy!!! 5 stars
12/06/10 judy what does the pinnochio symbolize in the movie? 4 stars
3/29/10 Billl Flowers Great acting throughout. Loved Plummer's character. 4 stars
3/22/10 Mark I like a Gershwin tune...and a Gilliam film! 5 stars
11/26/08 Leo T overacted and very effective... sweet and weird 4 stars
3/07/08 Quigley Gillam destroyed what could have been a powerful story. 2 stars
10/27/07 daveyt the grand central ballroom scene gets 5 stars on its own...! 5 stars
8/21/07 Matthew Cardier Few films combine madness and redemption, fantasy and reality as beautifully as this. 5 stars
6/18/07 fools♫gold Gilliam's films all deserve the same grades. 5 stars
4/05/07 JamesCole One of the greatest movies ever made. Really! 5 stars
4/04/07 R.W.Welch Overlong but mostly interesting story line. Ruehl rules. 4 stars
5/18/06 chienne Simply marvellous. Kudos to Robin Williams. 5 stars
12/19/05 Bree A few tears. A few laughs. And Jeff Bridges. 5 stars
8/28/05 asina this is one of the deepest, most rich films ever made. 5 stars
6/20/05 Wunson Future one of my all-time favorites---painful, funny, poignant 5 stars
11/16/04 Phil M. Aficionado I guess I wasn't in the mood for a mish-mash fantasy with wooden dialogue. Strange flick. 2 stars
6/22/04 John Williams overacts like crazy and Gilliam squeezes every scene for effect - less is more! 2 stars
12/14/03 roakat symbolism is the word. redemption and sin are the grand theme. williams and bridges brill 5 stars
11/23/03 Raymond Chandler Uplifting fable of loss, redemption, true love. Brilliant acting. US' BEST FILM of the90's. 5 stars
11/20/03 Denise Waters This movie goes into some many different levels it would be impossible to fully understand 5 stars
10/13/03 francis despite mostly good acting, sometimes bored me. Williams comes unstuck in romance scenes 3 stars
10/27/02 Matt Neopalitano Ooh! Isn't mental illness funny? 1 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum Strong visuals help; someone wake up Bridges 4 stars
5/20/02 siro My 2nd favorite movie of all time. If only more films were made this way.... 5 stars
4/30/02 Tiffany Faye Hawthorne Turgid misfire! Mercedes Ruehl sucks her own turds & gets Oscar for it. Others hardly bettr 1 stars
6/18/01 Ken All hail Terry Gilliam! 5 stars
5/10/01 StageHand First Rate! 5 stars
3/08/01 Richard Wright An intruging plot that goes downhill when Mork arrives.Not as clever as it wants to be. 3 stars
11/18/00 salvo amazing cast, such an intelligent film. 5 stars
4/26/00 PhilmPhreak Terry Gilliam's the MAN! 5 stars
3/01/00 Jesse S. I thought this film was a little weird, but I really enjoyed seeing Robin Williams naked!!! 4 stars
1/25/00 Chris Whitney The film that robbed Jeff Bridges of an oscar 5 stars
1/15/00 k.tomkowski Highly original and memorable. 5 stars
12/04/99 PervertedPixie A kinda urban fairytale inducing lots of laughter and tears. It charmed me. 5 stars
12/01/99 Michael Tancsak Most intreging and original movie I've seen in a while!! 5 stars
11/24/99 richard webber genius. Top 10 film of all time 5 stars
8/26/99 Ami the Wonderbread Just one more reason why I love Terry Gilliam and Robin Williams 4 stars
7/04/99 randy grubbs robin williams is great 4 stars
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