Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Fisher King Movie Review

Although The Fisher King is definitely much more of a Terry Gilliam film than a Robin Williams show, I’d never seen it before and so took the unfortunate occasion of Williams’ death to watch and review it. I say it’s a Gilliam film, but thtat’s based almost entirely on the visual style. The story elements contain themes that continually come up in Gilliam’s films such as the age-old conflict between good and evil. But in the character of Parry, a homeless ex-college professor suffering traumatic delusions owing to the witnessing of the brutal murder of his wife, it also becomes, in retrospect, a great Robin Williams vehicle.


The story of the Fisher King comes from Arthurian legend and here serves as an allegory and the basis for Parry’s delusional state. He believes he’s on a quest for the Holy Grail and that Jack Lucas, an alcoholic he inadvertently rescues from a suicide attempt, is the One who will get it from a wealthy recluse’s castle on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jack is a former “shock jock” radio show host, obviously modeled on Howard Stern, played by Jeff Bridges complete with sunglasses, pony tail, and plenty of smarm. His flippant dismissal of a caller leads to a mass murder at a bar, one of the victims being Parry’s wife.

It seems fate has brought Jack and Parry together three years after the incident. Jack sees helping Parry out of a sense of overbearing guilt as a means to redemption and crawling his way out of the bottle and his job at a video rental shop owned by his girlfriend, enabler, and supporter extraordinaire Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). Jack progresses from thinking that handing seventy dollars to Parry is enough, to believing he needs to play Cupid by getting him together with Lydia, the mousy accountant (played by Amanda Plummer) whom Parry follows daily in smitten adoration, to finally deciding to take up the challenge of retrieving the supposed Grail.

Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay expertly develops character, builds anticipation, and nudges us into reveals and reversals. There’s a lot going on here and he provides enough detail to connect us to several characters throughout, including another homeless man, played by Michael Jeter, with a penchant for Ethel Merman impressions and cross-dressing. The visual palette is all Gilliam. You can imagine another director taking this material and making a standard drama, keeping it grounded and realistic. That might also have been a very good movie, but Gilliam makes it unique and turns the whole thing into a fantasy. Everything from his use of close ups and fisheye lenses that distort the world to the found object costumes that Parry dons and the haunting effects and cinematography used to depict the Red Knight (the image that haunts Parry, reducing him to rubble at moments of weakness and insecurity) are Gilliam-esque and signal that we’re watching a total fantasy concoction, though populated with characters that express real humanity.

Maybe this is a detail I wouldn’t have picked up or touched on were it not for Williams’ death by suicide, but his performance as Parry takes him to some very dark places. The screenplay demands his manic energy channeled through the mind of a psychotic. This is a man who has to believe he is a medieval knight saving another man from a group of thugs, then later strip naked in a field in central park to feel free as he looks at the clouds, and then wallow in mortal anguish and despair as he confronts his tormentor, the Red Knight. Those scenes especially can be very difficult to take given news of his recent death. What was he accessing in his mind to reach such a fevered state? Gilliam once talked about fearing for how far he was pushing himself and still not being satisfied that he’d given enough. This was Williams’ third Oscar nomination and although it doesn’t contain the comedic riffing and ad-libbing he brought to Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, or Hook, it contains a similar energy. It may occasionally come across as a bit much, but watch any of Gilliam’s films and you’ll see similarly exaggerated manic states of mind in the likes of Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys, Johnny Depp as Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Jonathan Pryce in Brazil.

Gilliam seems obsessed with dark fantasies and the darkness to be found in fairy tales (it’s not surprising that he later made The Brothers Grimm). He found in The Fisher King access to some beautiful and original methods of telling a basic fairy tale legend and harnessed the power of the madman side of Robin Williams.

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