Terry Gilliam’s tale of the hunt for the Holy Grail in 1990s New York is 25 today. Hannah Dunleavy takes another look.
What and why: Terry Gilliam’s 1991 film starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer and Michael Jeter, in which a conversation between a shock jock and a disturbed caller leads to a massacre in a restaurant. Three years later, the DJ meets the widower of one of the victims of the shooting, now living rough, and sees an opportunity to clear his conscience.
Rated or dated: If you’re looking to buy The Fisher King you’ll find it in iTunes’ comedy section. That’s right: there might be a mass shooting, homelessness, mental illness, a vicious beating and two suicide attempts but that doesn’t mean we can’t all have a laugh at the same time.
Now, at this point in the preamble, I’d normally be saying, “It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling this off.” But in this case it’s not quite true, as this is the least Gilliam of all Gilliam’s films. It’s whimsical, it’s sentimental, it’s slapstick. It’s also contemporary, so it’s out with the steampunk and in with the video rental shop. So much so, I couldn’t shake the feeling when I was watching it again, that the Coen Brothers would’ve made a decent fist of it.
“Whether he’s rubbing his bare arse on the grass, wooing with a version of Lydia the Tattooed Lady or running terrified through the streets, Robin Williams is all over it.”
It’s also worth pointing out that while the overall ‘message’ is clearly ‘give a shit more’, if you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of homelessness or mental illness, you’ll be left wanting. It’s an allegory based on Arthurian legend (boom, there’s your Gilliam), in which The Fool (Bridges’ beponytailed dicksplash Jack Lucas) holds the key to finding the Grail. But you didn’t need me to explain that; Parry (Williams) does it beautifully about halfway through.
I might as well start with that night scene in Central Park, which, along with the gorgeous mass dance at Grand Central Station, is one of the enduring images of the film.
I was surprised to have not remembered that one comes straight after the other. And together, they are immediately preceded by the scene where Tom Waits plays a Vietnam war vet – begging from his wheelchair – who thinks his purpose is to remind people that life can get worse. And that scene is immediately preceded by the one in the hospital waiting room where Jeter’s ‘homeless cabaret singer’ lies in Bridges’ arms like Michelangelo’s Pietà and talks about all his friends dying of AIDS.
So, that’s at least a 15-minute period when The Fisher King is the most weirdly beautiful cinema ever. And among it all, just to remind us that this is a comedy, is one of the funniest exchanges in a Gilliam film.
Parry: Who are you talking to?
Jack: I’m talking to the little people.
Parry: Are they here?
Jack: They’re saying, “Jack, go to the nearest liquor store findeth the Jack of Daniels that ye may be shitfaced! Doolang, doolang!”
Parry: They said that?
When Williams relates the legend that gives the film its title, he and Bridges are shot together in close-up, for a long time. Williams does almost all the talking.
Whether he’s rubbing his bare arse on the grass, wooing with a version of Lydia the Tattooed Lady or running terrified through the streets, Williams is all over it.
Bridges gets about 20 minutes to establish the sheer hideousness/desperation of Jack before Parry is unleashed – arriving like a child’s drawing of a superhero knight and singing Frank Sinatra. And it’s a smart move, because if Jack wasn’t believable, Williams or no, the entire film would fall on its bare arse. Later, the close-up of the pair is replayed, as if to prove this point, this time with Bridges closest to the camera. Although with Williams still doing all the talking.
Mercedes Ruehl gets to plays a more liberated variation of the ‘woman waiting for her boyfriend to grow up’ trope and she does a nice job (in fact, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it). Plummer has the more fun role, as Lydia, the object of Parry’s affection, who is so out of sync with the rest of the world that the first time we see her she’s going backwards through a revolving door. She had largely been typecast as a victim before The Fisher King, but in truth, in sidestepping that mould, Plummer walked straight into another, with ‘dancing to the beat of her own drum’ becoming a speciality.
If anyone comes close to upstaging Williams, it’s the also gone-too-soon Jeter. Whether lying in horse shit or belting out the most extraordinary video shop rental promo (of his own devising and based on a medley of Gypsy tunes), if he’s in the scene, he owns it. Which is quite something considering his character doesn’t even have a name.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.