A former radio DJ, suicidally despondent because of a terrible mistake he made, finds redemption in helping a deranged homeless man who was an unwitting victim of that mistake.
Year 3, Film #21
THE GOOD: Acting. All-around the acting was phenomenal and easily the best part about The Fisher King. Without the acting in this movie, the weirdness that is a Terry Gilliam film would be just too much and overwhelm you. The actors however are able to ground this film in some semblance of a reality and make it more palatable for you, dear viewer.
Both Robin Williams (who played Parry, a deranged homeless man) and Mercedes Ruehl (who played Anne, the girlfriend of Jack Lucas) were nominated for Academy Awards in the supporting category with Ruehl winning hers. The reason these performances are so notable is they go with the flow. Williams is probably the best at it given his famous affinity for improv and his manic energy to carry him from bit to bit, but the others including Anne, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), and even Lydia (Amanda Plummer) in the few scenes she appeared.
I’ll be getting into the weirdness-aspect of the film in the negative portion and how it hurt the film’s point, but the important thing is that this acting served as an antidote to it. Most of the time when you mention how relatable a performance is or how well you can connect with the characters, it’s a good indicator of being drawn into the film; getting deeper into things and move invested in what’s happening. In The Fisher King, these performances which can be described the exact same way, have a different outcome. Instead of bringing us deeper into the film, it allows us to make sense of what we’re seeing.
While I’m making it sound like the bizarreness makes The Fisher King beyond comprehensible, the reality is less hyperbolic. The movie is somewhat straightforward, but without this remarkable acting to help guide us through it, I would have lost interest within the first fifteen minutes and not cared about what happened next. Parry, Anne, Jack, and Lydia were all so compelling though that I wanted to keep watching despite the reservations I had.
THE BAD: Speaking of reservations, let’s dig into this “weirdness”. I’ve seen two other Terry Gilliam films — 12 Monkeys and The Brothers Grimm — and from what I’ve heard and seen about his others, he has a very distinct style, and that style is best described as weird. Weird can be good (as I found in 12 Monkeys) and it’s important to note there can be several different kinds of “weird”.
Where the disconnect is in The Fisher King is the supernatural elements. Parry is convinced he’s on a mission from God to retrieve the Holy Grail and can talk with little, flying men and see hallucinations of some giant Red Knight, devil-reincarnate chasing him around. By the end, the idea crossed my mind that it could be a metaphor for his fear or arrested development after a life-changing incident that occurred earlier in his life. This theory was then strengthened once these “episodes”, for lack of a better word, begin to have flashbacks of the actual event thrown in.
Whether it is some metaphor or not doesn’t change the fact that, as was the case in The Brothers Grimm, “The tone… seemed a bit confused in a sense.” Is the film supposed to be a drama about Jack’s guilt for his radio show and how he tries to channel that to help Parry and others? Is it some supernatural quest as we look for the Holy Grail (maybe the Grail is also another metaphor)? Or is it a comedy as we see Parry break into musical numbers accompanied by fellow homeless from time to time or walking around New York City in tattered knight’s clothing? There are bits of each in the film but where Gilliam’s style proves problematic here is that it feels like the film is constantly changing it’s mind. It would be one thing if some ratio or division of the film’s efforts were established early on, that way we would know to expect a little of drama, supernatural, and comedy. But as the film is, that division is constantly changing which causes it to feel “weird” and lead to some confusion along the way.
THE TAKEAWAY: A film that’s filled with superb acting that helps you ground yourself in a story that’s constantly changing tone. Terry Gilliam has his name written all over this film and if your a fan, you’ll probably enjoy The Fisher King too. But while I very much enjoyed his style in 12 Monkeys, here it just seems too distracting and out of place.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5