on December 27, 2001
Terry Gilliam's post-Python oeuvre usually strikes me as rather cold and overly intellectualized. I 'like' his movies very much, but can rarely get close enough to 'love' them. "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys" being chief offenders in this complaint. I enjoyed their visions of futuristic dystopias, but never felt involved on an emotional level. Sure, "Baron Munchausen" tickled my whimsy-bone, and "Time Bandits" gave me kid-sized guffaws, but both those films also had a good dose of textbook thinking behind them, enough to keep the audience always an arm's length away.
"The Fisher King", like no other film in Gilliam's catalog, hits me on an emotional level. It is a visceral experience, unlike anything else I've seen from this offbeat director. Layered with tangible romance and pathos, Gilliam has created a film that will stand the test of time, even when its highbrow ideas become irrelevant.
Two scenes in particular illustrate the human beauty that this film is so adept at conveying. The first involves Parry (Robin Williams) and his daily routine: watching and following Lydia (Amanda Plummer), his from-afar crush, on her morning commute to work. Camped out in Grand Central Station, all we see are the throngs of people crowding and pushing their way to their trains. But when Parry sees Lydia, all that stops. Or rather, it changes. The music starts, tasteful glowing light emanates from the ceiling, and all the commuters take partners for a waltz. It's a ridiculously sublime moment, beautiful in all ways. It goes on until Parry suddenly loses Lydia in the crowd, and the dancing abruptly stops.
The other scene also involves Parry and Lydia, who are this time joined by Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). After scheming to get Lydia to come to dinner with them, Jack and Anne sit back to watch Parry try and woo her. His does so in the most childlike and endearing way: by imitating her clumsiness, her awkwardness, and her shyness. It's a mostly wordless scene, punctuated by the sight of dropped dumplings, Parry's stirring rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady", and Jack and Anne themselves getting caught up in the romance.
But don't get me wrong. The whole movie isn't sweetness and light. There are actually some terribly horrific scenes, most of them psychological in nature.
Jack is a former radio shock-jock, whose off-handed remark drove a listener to spray a yuppie restaurant with bullets. He's now down on his luck, drunk, and of the belief that he's eternally doomed, his karma forever destroyed by that one moment. Bridges gets both sides of Jack's persona right. He's slimy and selfish when on top of the world. Dirty, dreary, and dead inside when stuck in the gutter (a side curiosity: I count eight times Bridges has played a character named Jack, and that doesn't even include the surname of his character in the "Last Picture Show" movies).
Parry, even more so than Jack, is tormented by psychological demons. He is connected to Jack in a horrific way, one that I am loath to divulge here. A former university professor, Parry has taken on the insane alter ego of a homeless knight. Williams shines in this role, his boundless energy and improvisational spirit giving some much needed light to what could have been a dark character. Not that the darkness doesn't shine through. Parry, stalked by a mysterious Red Knight riding an unholy steed, has a series of near breakdowns. Williams has to show both the unbalanced side of Parry, and the one that used to exist, functioning within society. He does well on both counts. (N.B., the movie takes on greater meaning when you realize that Parry is short of Parsifal, an important character in another story about the search for the Holy Grail; recommended reading)
Plummer and Ruehl do important work as the women driving the men to great deeds. Plummer, an unconventional beauty, makes you believe Lydia's shyness and sadness, while also understanding why Parry has become so smitten with her. Ruehl, dressed her in her tackiest Erin Brockovich clothes, doesn't get as much as she gives from Bridges' Jack. But she plays Anne as a strong but wounded woman, caught between a need to love and nurture Jack, and a desire to get away from his harmful nature.
This is Gilliam's second quest-for-the-Holy-Grail picture. Although off-centre at times, this might be his most cohesive movie, utilizing a fairly standard three-act structure to go along with it's quest theme. Don't worry, Gilliam fans, the director's trademark esoteric visuals survive intact. Manhattan is captured as a gorgeous, but dangerously labyrinthine, wonderland. The screenplay, by Richard LaGravenese, throws in literary and historical allusions, weaving themes and motifs effortlessly throughout. It saddens me that, except for the marvelous "The Ref", LaGravenese has wasted the considerable talent he shows here, turning out schlock after schlock during the years following this, his initial triumph.
"The Fisher King", billed as a modern Arthurian fable, lives up to that description. Crass commercial culture, shock radio, homelessness, and even a sly reference to the nascent AIDS epidemic form the backdrop for this remarkable story, which mixes the entire range of human emotions in a very satisfying and entertaining stew.