By Marie-Renee Goulet
I always look forward to the worlds Terry Gilliam creates for each of his films. Many actors over the years have said that they sign on to his projects to get the “Terry Gilliam experience.” In The Fisher King, New York City takes on a surreal, dark, sometimes medieval personality. Although stylized, the movie is performance-driven and what a fantastic cast.
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a narcissistic shock jock modeled on Howard Stern. He is the number 1 morning man and, despite being utterly enamored with himself, fails to recognize the power he wields—words matter. Jack makes on-air comments, which causes a regular caller, Edwin (Christian Clemenson), to walk into a crowded restaurant with a shotgun, killing seven customers and himself.
Jack walks away from his career and sinks into a deep depression. After three years of living off his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl in an Oscar-winning performance), he ventures out in New York City, drunk and self-loathing; he contemplates suicide. As Jack stands ready to jump in the Hudson River with cement blocks strapped to his feet, he is mistaken for a homeless man, attacked by thugs and quickly saved by a crazy homeless man, Parry (Robin Williams). Jack soon finds out that Parry was married to one of the victims of the mass shooting he caused. Parry now lives in a fantasy world as he cannot handle the reality of his wife’s gruesome murder.
In reality, Parry is Henry Sagan, a former professor of medieval history. Inspired by The Fisher King legend, Parry is on a quest to retrieve what he believes to be the Holy Grail, which is luckily located in a billionaire’s home on the Upper East Side. He needs help to get it, and Jack then begins his quest for redemption. As Parry explains the legend, the king starts to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you, friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water, and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands, and there was the holy grail, which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.” The grail is compassion.
Bridges’ arc in this movie is demanding, going from a malignant narcissist to a depressed, broken man, and in the end, being genuinely changed for the better by his experience. A testament to Bridges’ talent and charm is that he keeps the character likable even after we realize that his focus was only on what he had suffered for the three years after the tragedy. He never tries to make amends with any of the families he indirectly touched and only attempts to make things right once he meets Parry. His first attempt at redemption is purely transactional. He wishes “for someway of just paying the fine and go home.” He proves the Machiavellian concept of helping someone else to help ourselves.
Williams, who earned a best actor Oscar nod for his performance, is heart-wrenching, funny, sweet, and filled with a deep dark pain brought on by the unimaginable trauma he experienced. Parry is much like a child, and his psychosis can take him to terrifying places as he tries to escape the Red Knight: reality. Parry is infatuated with the quirky Lydia Sinclair (Amanda Plummer), who would be a perfect match for Parry, as she has her issues with social conventions. Jack and Anne set up a double date as Jack believes that if Parry could be with a woman he loves, he could resume a healthy life. Things are not that simple. Williams’s portrayal of mental illness is touching with flashes of real vulnerability. Williams, always known for his ability to literally burst into manic improvisations, shows his range as an actor as he had done in quieter performances such as Dead Poet Society (1989) and Awakenings (1990). There is one striking scene where we see him go from one end of the spectrum to the other, flipping from a sweet homeless man to a full-on psychotic break.
There is a continuing social commentary throughout the movie regarding homelessness, mostly through Jack’s actions. Whereas we begin by complete dismissal: “A couple of quarters is not gonna make a difference anyway.” He does not even look at these men and women. As he spends more time with Parry’s friends, he starts asking questions, he listens and begins to feel empathy. Michael Jeter’s portrayal of a homeless cabaret singer channeling Ethel Merman is unforgettable. Jack starts to empathize. We all have our stories, and not all of us equally capable of overcoming addictions or tragedies. Jack struggles between genuine compassion and wanting others to pull through the pains of everyday life. Watching the movie again was a tad painful due to the circumstances of Robin Williams’ passing, coupled with the movie’s underlying theme of depression and suicide. A testament to the man’s ability to convey joy and innocence is that you feel happy for having spent a couple of hours in his company.
Some devices used to advance the story can feel trite, but we go along for the ride. Gilliam sprinkles some fairy dust in a few scenes, and my favourite is the Grand Central Station waltz. As Gilliam explained: “Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if in the middle of this rush hour – cause people were just running past each other – if, as they pass somebody, they glanced to their left or right, fell in love and started waltzing?” I really appreciate the sequence for having stood in the rush hour chaos at Grand Central a few times.
As most fantasy movies, we are treated to a happy ending, and love and compassion do conquer all.
Marie’s appreciation for movies & TV began early in life as it offered escapes, laughter, and often an education. It sparked a love of photography, travel, and a general curiosity for the world and everything in it. Originally from Quebec City, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Trebas Institute in 1998 where John H. Foote was her Film History professor. The winds pushed her into a different professional field and on a few adventures around the world. The passion for film and storytelling in all forms continues. Marie lives in the Canadian Rockies.