A flame-throwing red knight on horseback looms up on Manhattan’s traffic-clogged streets to chase a homeless man (Robin Williams). The image, laced with mirth and menace, is pure Terry Gilliam. In The Fisher King, Gilliam’s latest high-wire act, reality and fantasy collide just as they did in Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam makes dark, brutal comedies about the need for dreams in a dismal world sucked dry by bureaucrats. He’s a master of a lost art — the grand gesture. If you’re jazzed by that, as I am, The Fisher King will grab you. If not, you’re apt to squirm.
Gilliam has always been too pushy for some people. Ever since his start in the Sixties as an animator and performer with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam (the lone Yank in the batty British comedy troupe) has been conjuring up images of dehumanized societies that he defaces with scatological glee. As a director, Gilliam gained a serious reputation — Brazil remains the most stinging comic indictment yet of the corporate mentality — without losing his coarse vitality.
The Fisher King is a tidier, comfier, less fatalistic brand of Gilliam that betrays a drift toward the mainstream. But don’t panic. Gilliam is too mad-dog ballistic to make peace with convention for long. At its most outrageously entertaining, the film sweeps you up on waves of humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance. It also bloodies itself in Gilliam’s favorite battles: imagination versus logic, love versus lust, art versus commerce. The surprise is that he didn’t write the film. The script is the work of Richard LaGravenese, a former comedian who shares Gilliam’s passion for mythology and his sometimes-unwelcome penchant for moldy comic shtick.
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Gilliams plays Parry, a modern Percivale who fancies himself and his fellow street people as chivalrous knights in pursuit of the Holy Grail. Parry thinks he’s spotted it in a magazine photo. It sits in the library of the Fifth Avenue mansion of billionaire Langdon Carmichael, played by the film’s production designer, Mel Bourne, who deserves accolades for transforming New York into Gilliam’s magic kingdom. In truth, Parry the fool is a tragic figure, a former professor of medieval history who has escaped into a dream world rather than face the memory of his wife’s violent death. The red knight is the manifestation of that horror.
The improbable instrument of Parry’s deliverance is Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), the king of the radio shock jocks. Bridges, a solid actor who can slip into blandness, seems juiced by playing this arrogant bastard; he’s rarely been better. Lucas finds his career in ruins when a flip on-air remark about wiping out yuppie scum provokes a listener to open fire on the patrons of a chic cafe. Lucas spends the next year wallowing in boozy despair in the apartment of his wildcat girlfriend, video-store owner Anne Napolitano (Mercedes Ruehl), whose love he exploits but won’t return. Anne is trashy and uneducated (she calls the Grail “Jesus’ juice glass”), but her feelings run deep. Ruehl gives a blazing performance that cuts to the nerve, as well as the funnybone. But Anne can’t save Lucas. Mulling suicide by jumping in the East River, the bedraggled Lucas is attacked by vigilantes out to clear homeless bums from their neighborhood.
Peter Parry and three of his super bums, carrying makeshift weapons. The vigilantes are even more stunned when Parry leads his boys in a chorus of “How About You.” Williams is howlingly funny, just as he is onstage. That’s the problem. Parry was a teacher before he shut off reality, not a stand-up comic. Things get worse later when Parry gives Lucas shelter in a boiler room and does a monologue about bowel movements and how the “little people” have told him that Lucas will lead him to the Grail.
In addition to industrial-strength whimsy, the movie is burdened with clanging plot machinery. Parry tells Lucas the myth of the soul-sick Fisher King, whose spirit is reawakened by a fool. Learning that Parry’s wife was one of the victims in the restaurant shooting (the gory scene is chillingly rendered), Lucas tries to ease his guilt by giving Parry money. But romance is Parry’s obsession. The dream girl he is too shy to approach is a mousy, uncoordinated office worker named Lydia (a perfectly cast Amanda Plummer). In a breathtaking scene, lyrically shot by Roger Pratt (Batman), Parry follows Lydia to Grand Central Station and watches her in love-struck awe, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the rushhour crowd has broken into a waltz.
Lucas unites Parry and his damsel by getting Parry a job in Anne’s video store and telling Lydia she’s won a free membership. In a show-stopping turn, Michael Jeter (TV’s Evening Shade), playing a homeless cabaret singer, goes to Lydia’s office to deliver the prize, which he presents to her while belting out a number from Gypsy in drag.
Before long, Lydia and Parry are double-dating with Anne and Lucas at a Chinese restaurant. Overcome at being in the presence of his beloved, Parry sings an inappropriate Groucho Marx song, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” In an inspired stroke, Williams warbles this ribald ditty as a love ballad. As the camera slowly pans back, we see Lucas and Anne, who are also caught up in Parry’s sweet fervor. In detailing the interlocking stories of these four unlikely lovers, the film finds its heart.
Gilliam, however, correctly lets harsh reality intrude. Lucas goes back to his old ways, the lovers are divided, and the red knight reappears. If the film had ended here, The Fisher King might have achieved a stabbing pathos. Instead, Lucas must try to save Parry by scaling the wall of Carmichael’s fortress and capturing the alleged Holy Grail. Though a happy ending is defensible — it’s a fable, after all — this movie doesn’t know when to stop. It’s littered with implausibly cheery anticlimaxes. But the swoops and dives into compromise don’t affect the rush you get when the film is flying high with Gilliam’s visionary inventiveness. The Fisher King restores our belief in the power of movies to transform reality, even temporarily. So what if it’s not perfect? It’s magic.