Pros: Where it works, it's brilliant!
Cons: Where it doesn't work, it doesn't work at all.
Terry Gilliam, former Monty Python member, is one of my favorite and least favorite directors of all time. His work is fascinating and irritating. He is clever and imaginative. When he is on target, no one delivers a more satisfying movie-going experience. When he is off-target, no one misses the target by a wider mark. My main problem with Gilliam, however, is that it isn't a movie by movie hit or miss situation with him. Within each movie he has directed (Brazil, Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to name a few) there is a brilliant genius throughout that keeps being undermined by Gilliam's self-destructive sabotage of his own work. I can't just decide that a movie isn't working and walk out because I'm likely to miss something utterly brilliant. Well, guess who directed the Fisher King?
The Fisher King follows Gilliam's pattern of self-sabotage and utter brilliance again. The story is utterly brilliant. He gets some amazing performances from his actors and then there are these moments where one wonders where he lost it. At once, this movie is one of my most and least favorite movies of all time. A neat trick.
The story goes something like this: Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a New York City radio shock-jock. Abusive to his radio show's callers, he doesn't care about their problems. His only concerns are himself, his gratification and his ratings. He finds himself on the verge of making the break from radio to t.v. and becoming a national star on a sit-com. But things don't always turn out as planned. One night he takes a call from one of his show's regular callers. After blowing the man off with his usually combination and insensitive put-downs and wit, the caller goes over the edge. He enters a restaurant and shoots customers. The bloody and heinous violence of the tragedy sends Jack into a deep depression.
Jump ahead three years and we rejoin Jack. No longer at the top of his form. He wallows in self-pity. He is living with his girlfriend Anne Napolitano (Mercedes Ruehl) who owns a video store. She is beautiful, sexy, vivacious and positive about life. Although she loves him, he is too self-absorbed to know he has a good thing going for him.
Into his life steps Parry (Robin Williams) who is a street person. He used to have a good life and a loving wife, but went crazy when three years earlier his wife was killed in the restaurant shooting. Suddenly, the shock-jock thinks he has found his way to redemption. If he can help this man get his life together, he will have done his penance and will be redeemed. In trying to help him, he finds himself on a quest for "the Holy Grail" which is in a midtown Manhattan castle, and helping him to meet Lydia (Amanda Plummer)the woman he has only loved from afar .
When this film is funny, it is hysterically funny. When it is moving, it is incredibly moving. When it is annoying, however, it is annoying in a way that only Gilliam can achieve. What works, works perfectly. What doesn't work is a train wreck. It lacks direction and focus. There are too many moments when one is simply left thinking "huh?" or wondering what one should feel about what is going on.
Despite this, Gilliam gets enough right. Williams embues his former professor cum street person with heart, intelligence and depth. To his and Gilliam's credit, they have taken the plight of the homeless and personalized it. We become focussed on a real individual, however fantastic he might be. For the most part, Gilliam reigns him in and keeps him going over the top. Bridges and Ruehl are a terrific coupling and bring out the best in each other's performances. Amanda Plummer is absolutely brilliant as a woman lacking any self-confidence or social life who finds herself a Dulcinea to a man she never knew before. Also of note is Michael Jeter as a homeless transvestite with a penchant for singing Ethel Merman tunes.
I love the Fisher King when it works. When it doesn't, I'd like to put my fist through the television screen. I've rarely felt such frustration - except when watching other Terry Gilliam movies. If you haven't seen any of his work before, this is a good place to start. If you have, you know what I'm talking about. The Fisher King is inappropriate for children. It contains violence, strong language, sex and drugs. That's okay though. Most kids won't get it anyway. In the end, I recommend the movie because what works here makes it worth watching.