Retro Reviews: The Fisher King

You could call Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King a mess and you would be right. But then that would be sort of par for the course for a Gilliam film, who is as much an over-reacher, over-imaginer, and over-everything-er as directors come. Restraint is not one of Gilliam’s strong suits, and thus his films aren’t for everyone. In the case of this film though, the overflow, the manic and mad approach to the film work effectively in bringing to life what is as close to a modern fairy tale as films come.

We begin the film with Jeff Bridges’s Jack Lucas, a douchebag of a radio DJ, self-centered, obsessed with fame and with himself, and not caring about other people. He provokes a listener who then goes on a killing rampage. Jack’s life goes into a tailspin afterwards and he winds up working at the video of the woman he’s living with (Mercedes Reuhl in a career-defining performance) and going on a massive bender that leads him to a suicide attempt at the Brooklyn Bridge (I think). As he’s stumbling to the water two hoods attack Jack and Robin Williams’s Parry arrives to save him.

Parry is a former professor who’s broken with reality in the aftermath of witnessing his wife murdered in front of him; the murder among those killed by the listener that Jack provoked. Now Parry believes himself to be a knight who is on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Jack, driven by guilt and the hope of redemption, decides to try and help Parry. It’s these interactions between Parry and Jack that drive the film forward.

What truly drives the film though is this big-heartedness to it. As mentioned, Gilliam lays everything on thick, and in this modern-fantastic-pseudo-insanity-driven world it all works perfectly. From chasing the Red Knight through New York Streets to a Tom Waits monologue that leads into an exquisite waltz sequence in Grand Central Station to a Lady and the Tramp-like romantic dinner, there are many moments of unabashed heart-on-the-sleeve romance. Jack’s a douche throughout, but you can see that even he can’t keep out the excitement and urgency in Parry.

We know where all of this will go, where it all must go. The douce has to become a good guy at some point or other, the romances in the film have to come to something. It’s in seeing how all of these come together, through the twisted imagery of Gilliam, that the enjoyment comes.

One of the good things that Gilliam manages is the balance between such grandiose romantic moments and the deeply saddening foundations that the film bases its themes on. Murder, death, guilt, responsibility, loneliness, fear, and an inability to cope with the events of the real world underly all of the happiest moments. And yet, despite looking at all of these ugly, painful things The Fisher King transcends to tell a story of optimism, love, and happily-ever-after.

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