US Release Date: 09-20-1991
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
- Robin Williams, as
- Jeff Bridges, as
- Mercedes Ruehl, as
- Amanda Plummer, as
- Michael Jeter, as
- Homeless Cabaret Singer
- Al Fann, as
- David Hyde Pierce, as
- Lou Rosen
- Lara Harris, as
- John de Lancie, as
- TV Executive
- Kathy Najimy, as
- Crazed Video Customer
- Harry Shearer, as
- Sitcom Actor Ben Starr
- Ted Ross, as
- Limo Bum
- Carlos Carrasco, as
- Tom Waits as
- Disabled Veteran
Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King.
In many ways, Fisher King represents director Terry Gilliam's most mature work. For once it's the actors who are the main attraction and his unique visual style only serves the story rather than dominating it. Although it contains elements of the fantastical, at its heart, it remains grounded in reality. It remains the only film of his to receive an acting Oscar, with Mercedes Ruehl winning for Best Supporting Actress. Williams was also nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. The script by Richard LaGravenese, which was also Oscar nominated, combines humor and drama to great effect.
Although Ruehl and Williams both received more attention for their acting than Bridges, watching it for the first time in many years, it was his performance that stood out the most to me. Williams and Ruehl are both playing large characters and they do good work, but Bridges is much more subtle and nuanced. Williams tries to steal his scenes with humor, but this is Bridges's film and he holds it together. It's the story of his character's journey toward redemption. Perhaps it's because his character isn't very likable through much of the film that kept audiences from sympathizing with him.
Bridges plays Jack, a successful radio shock jock in New York City in the early 1990s. When during one of his rants he tells a mentally disturbed caller that yuppies at a certain fashionable bar need to be stopped, that caller takes a gun to that bar and goes on a killing spree. We then cut to some time later with Jack's career gone and he is living with Anne (Ruehl) above the video rental store that she owns. Wracked with guilt and depression, Jack is now a drunk. During one night spent wandering drunkenly around the streets of the city, he is rescued from an attack by a couple of teenagers by Perry (Williams). Perry is mentally unbalanced, believing himself to be a knight errant. He speaks to people who aren't there and thinks that the Holy Grail is located in a mansion on the Upper East Side. When Jack wakes up in the basement that Perry calls home, Perry tells him that he thinks Jack was sent to help him retrieve the grail. Later Jack finds out that Perry used to be a professor, but he went a little crazy when his wife was killed during the attack in that bar that Jack blames himself for. With that in mind, Jack decides that if he can somehow save Perry, or make it up to Perry, that he will be able to find peace for himself.
Despite the heavy concept, the script contains plenty of humor. Perry's manic personality, played as only Robin Williams could, provides much of the humor. His interactions with Jack's much more repressed persona is the source of many jokes, such as when Perry goes naked in Central Park at night, while Jack looks on in horror. Michael Jeter is also quite funny as the homeless cabaret singer who lends Jack a hand by singing a version of "Everything's Coming up Roses" in a crowded office. Amanda Plummer also generates a few laughs as the quirky object of Perry's affections. But there are plenty of smaller funny moments throughout the film, like Jack's video recommendation to an energized video customer played by Kathy Najimy.
Gilliam's decision to make this film came as a result of his experience on The Adventures of Baron Muncheusin, which was a nightmare production that ran long and far over-budget. He decided to make a lower budget film set in the modern world. The setting forces him to restrain his usual visual flair, but he still manages to make his mark. Perry's madness is represented by the Red Knight who appears before him when the border between sanity and fantasy becomes too thin. Seeing the large knight, galloping through the streets of Manhattan, breathing fire, in full armor, is an arresting vision. Gilliam also makes good use of angles and perspective, often turning the camera askew. Although he originally intended to simply shoot the script as is, one scene on a crowded subway car just wasn't working and so Gilliam created the film's most memorable visual scene where Perry follows Lydia through Grand Central station, which is magically transformed into a room filled with waltzing couples, complete with disco ball atop the central clock. It's a perfectly filmed scene and a magical movie moment.
The film's only real flaw is that it runs a bit long. It's the relationship between Jack and Perry that is at the film's heart and too much time is spent away from that relationship. There are some sweet moments between Perry and Lydia and some dramatic ones between Jack and Anne, but neither of the romantic relationships is as strong as the one between the two male leads. The resolution of their relationship and the quest for the Holy Grail is what matters, rather than if either of the couples will live happily ever after together.
It was the success of this film that brought Gilliam as close to the mainstream as his career has yet taken him. He proved that he could take someone else's script and make it look better through the prism of his vision. However, given the trajectory of his career in the years since, it's obvious that wasn't the path he wanted to take. His subsequent films may have been more satisfying to him personally, but I for one lament the film's that might have been. Reportedly he was J.K. Rowling's first choice to direct the Harry Potter films, but the studio rejected the idea. He was also linked for many years to The Watchmen film, but that too was not meant to be. He has always made interesting, but mostly unsuccessful films, but with a little more flexibility his career could have been very different.
Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Jeff Bridges, and Amanda Plummer in The Fisher King.
This is probably my favorite Terry Gilliam movie. It bears repeat viewing. It has dark, adult subject matter but with an ending that leaves you smiling. It combines a unique blend of the disturbing and the funny with some romance tossed in for flavoring. At one point in the movie Robin Williams as Perry says, “There's three things in this world that you need: respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.” Allow me to loosely paraphrase Perry by saying, “The Fisher King possesses the three most important ingredients required to make a great motion picture: inspired direction, talented actors, and a compelling script.”
First the direction. Terry Gilliam keeps his overt cinematic flourishes to a minimum. He trusts the screenplay and stays out of the way of the story being told. Too many modern directors can't -or simply aren't willing- to do this. With their intrusive camera movements they must constantly remind the viewer they are watching a movie. The few visual flairs Gilliam did incorporate, like the waltzing couples in Grand Central Station (including a few same sex couples - a rare move for 1991) and the Red Knight who looks like a splattering blood stain burning from within, compliment the plot without slowing it down. It's a job well done.
Now for the actors. The four central characters were all brilliantly cast. Robin Williams as a schizophrenic is a natural fit. As Perry he handles the showy stuff as well as expected but he also reveals a layer of vulnerability that is heartbreaking to behold. Amanda Plummer as Lydia matches him quirk for quirk and tic for tic. Together they share a relationship that seems both true to life and movie magical at the same time. Mercedes Ruehl has a couple of juicy scenes that won the Oscar for her. But I agree with Scott that Jeff Bridges is the best thing in the movie. It is Jack's story after all. He starts the movie as a man without a soul, preaching his own particular brand of nihilism to the masses. By the final scene he's a completely changed man, and for once it doesn't seem either corny or contrived.
The script is smart and dramatic with a few unexpected moments of hilarity. Scott mentioned the funniest scene. The homeless cabaret singer -in drag- stopping the show -in an office- by doing a medley from Gypsy at the top of his lungs, is roll on the floor funny. Now I'd also like to take this opportunity to bring up Barbra Streisand. She has nothing to do with this movie but VHS copies of Funny Girl and Funny Lady are clearly visible on a shelf in one of the video store scenes. I get excited by any Babs sighting on film.
The character of acerbic talk radio host Jack Lucas was clearly based on Howard Stern. The famous shock jock was originally planning on donating some tapes from his show but declined participation once he learned he wasn't getting paid. Richard LaGravenese wrote some of the best dialogue for this cynical DJ whose words incite a tragedy. In one scene he gets drunk and discusses philosophy with a Pinocchio doll. “You ever read any Nietzsche? Nietzsche says there's two kinds of people in the world: people who are destined for greatness like Walt Disney... and Hitler. Then there's the rest of us, he called us "The bungled and the botched." We get teased. We sometimes get close to greatness, but we never get there. We're the expendable masses. We get pushed in front of trains, take poison aspirin... get gunned down in Dairy Queens.”
I agree that a tighter edit would have been welcome. The Fisher King does run about 20 minutes too long. Still this movie from 1991 remains eminently watchable with its potent mix of the deranged and the absurd.
Robin Williams in The Fisher King
When I first saw this film I recall being excited by the prospect of Robin Williams working with a member of Monty Python. With these two, the possibilities for laughs seemed endless. My expectations were high. Too high in fact, as I was disappointed and a little bored by the lack of humor and the presence of such heavy drama. I remembered liking some of Williams’ bits and only truly laughed at the scene with the homeless person doing a medley from Gypsy, which Patrick described.
Watching it now, without any preconceived anticipation, I found a hard hitting psycho drama with some wonderfully light moments. This time around, I focused on the character of Jack. As Scott wrote, It's his journey toward redemption. Where I messed up, and so did Gilliam, was in focusing too much on Perry and Lydia. Granted, Williams has such an extraordinary entertaining presence that I understand the desire to leave the camera on him. As Patrick noted, the story arc is Jack’s not Perry’s.
Jack, with a conscience packed with guilt, decides to try and save Perry, hoping in the process to save himself. He thinks the answer lies in Lydia, and if he can only set them up together, both Perry and he will be in a happier place. What Jack does not understand is that he truly does not know Perry. We are given no back story on him. Maybe Perry was a little off before the tragic death of his wife?
Sanity is a relative term. Anyone in this film at one time or another could be considered a little off. Besides Perry, we have Lydia who is wracked with social awkwardness and anxieties. Anne is obviously being used by Jack, but her desperation for love, however sincere, causes her to excuse his bad behavior. Jack even starts to see the killer, much as Perry sees the Red Knight.
I also noted this time around some details that Gilliam is known for. At one point Perry expresses his desires to Lydia by saying, “I have a hard-on for you the size of Florida.” Early in the movie, when Jack is in his apartment, his apparent girlfriend is sketching a picture of a naked man behind a map of the United States, in which Florida is in place of his penis. Later in his apartment, he practices his lines for an upcoming sitcom audition, where he recites the line, “Excuse me.” over and over again. Three years later his life depends on Perry excusing him.
I agree with my brothers, although The Fisher King contains many entertainingly funny moments, it runs a bit long. Lydia’s part should have been drastically cut. All we need to know is that Perry is in love with her. Leave in the gloriously romantic walk through Grand Central station and the drag queens invitation. The big date scene should have been trimmed way back. Lydia’s part is more of a distraction than a destination. The relationships between Jack and Perry, as well as Jack and Anne, are the film's heart. Jack must help Perry find his sanity in order for him to save his soul while Anne represents Jack’s growth.
The Fisher King has so much to offer. It can be brilliantly funny and darkly dramatic. It is also nicely romantic. One of my favorite scenes this time around is when Jack and Anne kiss passionately at the end. They back up against a wall of porn videos, causing them to fall onto them mid embrace.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures Corporation (1991)