We imagine the movie seducing us more efficaciously if Gilliam more often locked up his fondness for cartoonish comedy and if Williams were less flamboyant — what a lovable character he might have become if the subtleties of his Good Will Hunting (1997) characterization were here instead.
But The Fisher King is the rare film that still manages to conquer in spite of its setbacks. Gilliam and Williams are sometimes their own worst enemies, but it doesn’t stop the movie’s persuasive development of at least one heartfelt romance, and its valid fleshing out of characters who start from the bottom but are ultimately able to defeat their demons with enough elbow grease.
It believes in the life-changing power of coincidence: It is about the former shock jock Jack’s (Jeff Bridges) long-winded attempts to better the life of Parry (Williams), a homeless man whose life has been destroyed after one of Jack’s on-air rants inspired a man to a commit a mass murder-suicide that resulted in the death of Parry’s wife.
As its running time nears two-and-a-half hours, The Fisher King is also much more fully-formed than one might expect a feature coming dangerously close to being an insensitive stab at crafting a feel-good picture to be. It additionally takes its time to establish the guilt Jack feels for inadvertently ruining the lives of so many people: In the years since the incident, he has become a reclusive, misanthropic alcoholic who figures he has little to live for besides his supportive girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). And it picks up on the everyday tragedy that is not being able to live up to your dreams; one side character (Michael Jeter), for instance, dreamed of being a Broadway sensation but has heartrendingly become a drug-addicted, disabled vagrant.
Yet The Fisher King only touches greatness when hovering above either of these subplots. That’s mostly because they’re intimate and have an emotional punch backing them. So we’re not so satisfied when Jack meets Parry by chance and decides that he’ll do anything he can to make the latter’s life change for the better to deplete his guilt (in lieu of Parry’s operatically erratic behavior). To set this in motion, the movie then sets up a romance between Parry and a peculiar woman with whom he’s fallen in love from afar (Amanda Plummer), which is, by turns, forced, slightly creepy, and just too easy. It doesn’t help that Williams exclusively — and insufferably — acts in broad strokes.
How much better the film would be if he were quiet and contemplative, waiting to be freed from his past traumas, and how much better the film would be if his lady love were not drawn just as emotionally and intellectually turbulent as he. But Richard LaGravanese’s screenplay, likely not helped by Gilliam’s adoration of all things bizarre, seems infatuated by these caricatured, pronouncedly batty people.
What makes The Fisher King worthwhile, then, is the relationship between Jack and Anne, which is lived-in and characterized by a sort of deep, almost sweeping devotion. It also might seem to be such a successful foray, however, because Ruehl is the best thing about the movie, able to bring so much of its indulgence back down to earth. While everyone around her is scattered and trying to make the most of the rambling ideas on the page (though Bridges often overcomes the aesthetic mania, too), Ruehl is fierce and smart, someone who always puts her heart on the line even when it’s likely going to cause her a great deal of pain. The moments that simply feature Jack and Anne trying to work through the hardships of their relationship — and, in other times, showcasing their love for one another — are the movie’s finest, and we reason that a film merely focusing on them would be good enough.
But we can never quite stomach The Fisher King; it’s too verbose, too unfocused. It gratifies its makers’ liking of the absurd too often, and deals with its themes, most evidently redemption and forgiveness, in capital letters. But Bridges and especially Ruehl are so exceptional, we’re willing to go on the flighty journey Gilliam and LaGravenese lay out for us. Just don’t expect to like every detour you’re forced to travel down. B-
2 Hrs., 18 Mins.
The Fisher King
he famously artistically uninhibited Terry Gilliam at his best when he’s at his most uninhibited, and the famously theatrically uninhibited Robin Williams is at his best when he’s at his least uninhibited. So their second and final collaboration, 1991’s The Fisher King, makes for a slightly cockeyed movie: Gilliam’s directing is unusually understated (for him, anyway), and Williams’ acting is excruciatingly over-the-top, the live-action equivalent of his voice performance in Aladdin (1992) and then some.