Here’s a setup for a redemption arc: Jack (Jeff Bridges), a repugnant shock jock spews bile onto his faithful audience, berating them, harassing them. For his efforts he lives in a huge penthouse overlooking Manhattan and enjoys the company of an attractive model girlfriend.
Soon though he gives the wrong advice to the wong caller, who uses their conversation as the pretext to take a shotgun into a restaurant and murder seven innocent people. The film skips ahead three years, Jack sulks in a video store. He’s technically an employee, but really is just leeching off the store owner. She’s technically his girlfriend, although their relationship consists of Jack doing the bare minimum necessary to keep her feeding him.
One night, tempted by thoughts of suicide, Jack drunkenly wanders to the river under the overpass. He straps cinder blocks to his shins and stands at the water’s edge. His suicide attempt is interrupted by a couple thugs carrying a baseball bat and two tins of gasoline. They mistake Jack for a bum at a glance and set upon him. Only through the chance intervention of Parry (Robin Williams), a bum who fancies himself a knight, is Jack rescued at the last moment.
After sobering up the next morning, Jack starts to try to repay Parry… Parry wants to draft Jack into stealing a chalice he believes to be the holy grail from a mansion on the Upper East Side. Jack instead decides to hook up Parry with Lydia (Amanda Plummer) who Parry fawns over from a distance.
Director Terry Gilliam explicitly references his earlier film, Brazil, via a poster and he takes the same sensibility here. Through Parry’s eyes Manhattan is a host to demonic red knights on flame breathing steads. When he catches sight of Lydia in Grand Central station, everyone on the floor starts into a romantic ballroom dance, with Lydia slipping through the crowd, just out of Parry’s reach.
Even untethered from Parry, Gilliam’s New York is captured with dynamic camera angles and complex tracking shots. That may sound like a compliment, but in practice it’s often distracting, further pushing Parry and Jack away from any semblance of reality. A slow paced sequence as the main characters dine on Chinese food is the most powerful in the film, besting Gilliam’s more showy set pieces.
Redemption stories tend to hang on the redeeming qualities of its subject. In the Fisher King however, Jack has no such qualities whatsoever. For almost the entirety of the picture he is a two dimensional character, a caricature of vanity and self absorption made flesh. Ultimately his is not a story of a heart growing three sizes, but of acquiring a completely new conscious. Williams too bounces between the extremes of driven mania and pathos with too little in between to constitute a full person.
In stark contrast to the male leads, Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer arrive fully formed. Plummer in particular gets only a handful of sequences to establish her character. Where a lesser actress would succumb to the damsel in distress trope, she manufactures a dignity to go alongside Lydia’s solitude and clumsiness.
Though The Fisher King is primarily concerned with Jack and Parry, its strongest when it allows its women to speak.
The Fisher King exists at the tail end of the rampant violence that gripped urban life in the second half of the twentieth century. The hoodlums that attack Jack are not “brought to justice” in the context of the film. Likewise all the significant homeless characters seem to be afflicted with deep madness. That The Fisher King could pass both of these off as slight plays on the common perception of urban life at the start of the nineties says how far society has progressed. I’ll go out on a limb and put this film in an anthropological context capturing the last vestiges of the era of mass lead poisoning. The tone of madness and sadism on display throughout the Fisher King just doesn’t jibe with the modern world, enough so as to chip away at the film’s credibility.
All of Robin Williams filmography is getting a second look following his tragic suicide. The Fisher King is not his best work, but it’s the rare picture that utilizes every facet of William’s persona. It devotes full scenes to his mania, and a very touching sequence to his pathos.