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What To Watch: Love Heals All in ‘The Fisher King’ (1991)

The Fisher King is a 1991 drama about a former radio DJ, suicidally despondent because of a terrible mistake he’s made, finding redemption in helping a deranged homeless man.

A while back, one of the best things about movies was waiting for the next Terry Gilliam project, he an alum of Monty Python’s Flying Circus who made a slew of highly imaginative films that while visually stunning were also great fun. From Time Bandits to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to Twelve Monkeys and Brazil, his films pushed us to think differently, to allows ourselves to get lost in alternatives worlds, and to celebrate the pure joy of simply going to the movies.

Such was the case in 1991 and the release of his most grounded – if that’s possible – film, The Fisher King, a tragic and yet uplifting tale that performed moderately well in theaters though was critically acclaimed for its writing, direction and performances, earning co-star Mercedes Ruehl an Academy Award and lead Robin Williams an Oscar nod. It’s an unusual story and while Gilliam layers it in plenty of, well, Gilliam-isms, it’s remarkably honest and often heartbreaking. Let’s take a look.

THE STORY: Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a popular radio shock DJ who doesn’t much care about his listeners, always berating and insulting them, going for conflict rather than compassion, until one day, his tirade encourages an on-air caller to commit a mass murder-suicide at a New York restaurant. The aftermath causing him to quit his job, become an alcoholic and eventually head to the park with plans to kill himself. There he meets Parry (Williams), a delusional homeless man with a tragic story on a holy quest who convinces Jack to join him, offering him a chance for redemption.

the_fisher_king
TriStar Pictures

This involves a bit of fantasy on Parry’s part, but Jack learns the embattled man is smitten with a mousy young woman named Lydia (Amanda Plummer), whom he watches from distance as she goes in and out of her office building. Jack sees a chance to pull Parry back to reality with a promise of love, but things are not so easy, and Jack has his own issues with his dedicated girlfriend Anne Napolitano (Ruehl), who wants only for Jack to find hope.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While Bridges is really good and Williams of course makes this his own, it’s the women who ultimately steal the show. As the long suffering girlfriend who is always by his side, Anne pushes Jack to better himself, showing him that there is forgiveness and redemption waiting for him if he is willing to do the work. She is all spit and fire and yet so forgiving, redefining for Jack that there is such a thing as unconditional love. Lydia is timid and shy, unconvinced she has anything to offer anyone, let alone a man, and yet Plummer gives her such weighty warmth, making it easy for anyone to fall in love with her.

Beyond the terrific performances though, the movie is a delight to watch, simply because Gilliam packs it with inspiring and often deeply emotional imagery. Williams is haunted by a hallucinatory red knight who rides a great steed, chasing him wherever he goes. He further believes God has given him a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, Parry obsessed with the legend of the Fisher King. Gilliam has always been a visual director and he is no less here, giving the streets and parks of New York City a sort of second skin, fueled by Parry’s delusions.

A GREAT MOMENT: Jack is broken man, seemingly irreparably scarred by the tragedy, and in the company of the unstable Parry – who we learn later has a connection to Jack – becomes driven to “fix” him and end the terrible wrong he is convinced he is responsible for, trying to free himself of a great and terrible sin. The secret to doing so may lie in Lydia as she has so enraptured poor Parry’s soul. Jack approaches Lydia and arranges a date where he and Anne take Lydia and Parry to a Chinese restaurant where the two are clearly a match.

TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures

The scene is really built of three parts with the first being Jack and Parry preparing for the date, Parry wearing an old suit of Jack’s that needs some drastic alterations, though there being no time, they come up with an inventive solution. At the restaurant, the four sit together in a booth and the story takes a break from the quest and centers on the new relationship. It even has a bit of singing from Parry, a touching little ballad that says much about how he feels. And then comes the finale of this little gem. Parry walks Lydia home, still wearing those baggy clothes. He stops at her stoop and professes a sudden deep love for her, telling her all things he has noticed from afar, the idiosyncrasies and habits that define her, moving her (and us) to tears. A great moment from Williams, even as it ends in a bit of darkness.

THE TALLY: The Fisher King is a funny, heartbreaking story well worth a look (again), with genuine performances and some clever direction. Like all of Gilliam’s films, it’s a little off center and exists in a slightly absurd universe where he invites us to participate in stories that amuse and move. With this wonderfully human tale, it’s all the more so. It’s what to watch.

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