The Good: Characters, Performances, Direction, General plot
The Bad: Editing
The Basics: One of the most powerful, diverse performances by Robin Williams came in The Fisher King, one of Terry Gilliam’s most profound explorations of human suffering.
Yesterday, the world lost an immense talent with the suicide of Robin Williams. For the past day, my wife and I have been strangely in shock; for her, this is the first celebrity death she has experienced that has genuinely shaken her. For me, I’ve been trying to find a way to commemorate the actor that does not lead me to a rant about how Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film can never be realized (and fuck you, American financers for not seeing the potential of that a decade ago!). One of my fondest memories of all stand-up comedy was Robin Williams doing Shakespeare: “Look! The moon, like a testicle, hangs low in the sky!” But amid his life of comedy films, what shocked me the most about the life of Robin Williams was how masterful a dramatic actor he was. In some ways, with his range and ability to portray dramatic depth and blistering emotions, the suicide of Robin Williams is unsurprising; such greatness, intelligence and emotional realization seldom comes without a price. So, to commemorate the life of Robin Williams, today I thought to take in one of his films that I had – surprisingly – not yet reviewed: The Fisher King.
Before today, I had only seen The Fisher King once, back when I was in college. I had not been prepared for Robin Williams in a serious, not-funny, role, but his portrayal of Parry caused me to entirely rethink who Williams was as an actor. Rewatching the film now, as an adult, The Fisher King is a powerful film that illustrates the talent Terry Gilliam has for direction, storytelling and getting great performances out of his actors. While Gilliam’s style is evident in almost every single shot of The Fisher King, the story he and writer Richard LaGravenese tell is much more universal than some of Gilliam’s more fantastic works. The Fisher King is intense and quirky and it is unsurprising it was nominated for many awards; perhaps the only real surprise for me was how many of those nominations did not materialize with wins. Given that The Fisher King was up against Silence Of The Lambs (reviewed here!) and that Robin Williams lost his Best Actor Oscar to Anthony Hopkins that year, there was no shame in Williams’ loss and it is all the more surprising that a genre film walked away with the uncommon Best Picture win that year. The Fisher King is a film that does not fit into any easy boxes for defining, though the dramatic elements certainly overwhelm the comedic and romantic aspects, so those expecting a Robin Williams comedy will be surprised.
Jack Lucas is a radio shock jock in New York City who is callous and hates yuppies. On the eve of his breakout from radio to television, Jack makes an offhanded comment to a caller that pushes the caller to go into a yuppie bar where he shoots several patrons and then himself. Three years later, Lucas is stuck working at a video store for his girlfriend, Anne. Drunk, despondent and only marginally functional, Jack pushes Anne away and goes out into the night where he prepares to kill himself. At the edge of the Hudson River, Jack is about to jump when two yuppie thugs come out of nowhere and begin beating him up. Before they can set him on fire, Jack is rescued by Parry, a bum who rallies other homeless people to save man getting mugged. Waking up in Parry’s home – the boiler room of an apartment building - Jack learns from the landlord that Parry’s wife was one of the victims in the shooting and his sense of guilt overwhelms him.
Parry is convinced that billionaire Langdon Carmichael’s house has the Holy Grail and he tries to enlist Jack to help him break in. But when Jack tries to pull Parry into the real world, Parry has a hallucination of the Red Knight, who makes him flee. When Parry calms down, he reveals to Jack that he is smitten with a woman he follows daily. To alleviate his guilt, Jack (with the reluctant aid of Anne) helps Parry woo the woman, Lydia. But after their successful first date, Parry’s feelings for Lydia cause him to remember the incident and he runs off into the night, where hoodlums beat him nearly to death. With Jack’s career restored, he begins to cut his ties to Anne and the comatose Parry . . . until his sense of guilt moves him to take up Parry’s quest!
The Fisher King is a character-driven story and unlike so many of Terry Gilliam’s works where Society is the villain, most of the conflict in this film comes from internal sources. Parry is an obviously tortured character from the beginning, but what makes Jeff Bridges’s Jack such an interesting character is that his humanity is evident from almost the first scene. While on his radio show, Jack is abrasive and dislikable, but the moment the news breaks about the shooting, he is shocked and culpable. The consequences of his indifference to Edwin (the shooter) breaks Jack much the way the shooting destroys Parry’s life. So, despite seeming at times like an asshole, Jack is a character who is surprisingly easy to empathize with and the viewer wants to see him grow through his interactions with Parry.
Parry is appropriately shellshocked by the night at the bar where his wife was killed. The Fisher King smartly rounds out Parry’s story with a smart backstory and a solid basis for the character to be both lost and found through his interactions with Jack. The process is not simple, nor is it easy to watch, but the film is rewarding if for no other reason than it captures both the resilience of the human spirit and a revival of the fantastic. While mythological imagery acts as a plague to Parry, the desire to take up a quest and do a good thing becomes an inspiration for Jack and plays well for the viewer.
Jeff Bridges plays both the wounded and reborn versions of Jack very well. Robin Williams gives one of the best performances of his life as Parry, credibly playing the dignified professor in flashbacks and loopy, heartbroken man for the bulk of the film. Williams plays the erratic nature of Parry well and he was obviously cast, in part, for his mastery of comic timing. But more than just being comedic relief in The Fisher King, Williams is able to capture strong emotions and Terry Gilliam captures an exceptional performance from Williams where the actor uses only one side of his face in one of Parry’s first breakdowns in the film. Williams and Amanda Plummer play off one another well-enough for Parry and Lydia to be a credible romantic couple.
What surprised me was the range actress Mercedes Ruehl brought to the supporting role of Anne. Ruehl was only familiar to me from her role of Kate Costas in the third season of Frasier (reviewed here!) and in The Fisher King she plays virtually every emotion possible as Anne. The role could be an erratic one if delivered by a less-gifted actress, but Ruehl nails every beat, easily earning her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role. While Williams is an actor I’ve come to expect some range from, Ruehl ruled every scene she was in in The Fisher King.
Depressing without being overbearing, The Fisher King holds up remarkably well (despite some troublingly skippy cuts in the film) and is a masterwork for Terry Gilliam, Mercedes Ruehl, and Robin Williams. Now, it stands as one of the crown jewels in the legacy of Robin Williams.
For other works with Robin Williams, please visit my reviews of:
The Big Wedding
World’s Greatest Dad
Night At The Museum
Man Of The Year
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
What Dreams May Come
Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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