The Fisher King is an anomaly in the oeuvre of a director already known for bizarre films. Terry Gilliam’s career has encompassed the greatest sketch comedy show in history, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Hollywood science fiction/remakes of obscure French New Wave, dystopian fantasy and more weirdo misfires than I’m inclined to charitably include here. Only in as strange a filmography as Gilliam’s would the lone movie inclined to realism actually be the odd man out. But while The Fisher King may be set in a world that’s more or less the same as our boring ol’ every day one, it has the same essential DNA of any Gilliam movie, which means: wistful romanticism, unbearable tragedy and some seriously messed up visuals.
There’s at least one glaring reason why The Fisher King feels a little different from any other of Gilliam’s work: it was the first movie he made in which he was not involved with the screenplay, instead opting to work with writer Richard LaGravenese. In that, it lacks his skewed views on bureaucracy and storytelling conventions, though those themes still pop up. Instead, there’s a greater focus on the characters themselves, on the players as more than cogs in gigantic machines or characters in self-reflexive stories. It’s Gilliam at his most human, which is probably why it was an unexpected critical success (earning a slew of Oscar nods and even winning a huge ratio of them) as well as a relative commercial success. And that latter part is no accident either; after the massive debacle (far from his last) of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Gilliam needed a win, particularly a financial one. The Fisher King is the lowest key and least fantastical of all of Gilliam’s movies, but in that it has something that a few more chaotic, imaginative of them, like Munchausen or The Brothers Grim (2005) do not: a heart.
The plot is largely concerned with two things: the unlikely friendship between Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) and Parry (Robin Williams), and even more unlikely, the quest for the Holy Grail. In New York City. In the 1990s. Jack begins the film as a caustic radio talk show host in the mode of Howard Stern, who inadvertently advises a highly strung caller to go on a killing spree. Several years later, Jack is a washed up clerk in a video rental store with a drinking problem and a long suffering girlfriend named Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). After a particularly bad bender, he ends up being mistaken for a homeless man and is about to be immolated by a group of punks. Cue Parry, a real homeless man with delusions of being an Arthurian knight and a corresponding drive to protect the innocent. Jack feels indebted to Parry, their bond grows, Parry seems to be getting his life (and a young lady played by Amanda Plummer) together, until Jack discovers Parry’s real past: he was once a young scholar whose wife was graphically murdered in front of him by the same gunman who Jack inadvertently triggered. A little on the nose, yes, but The Fisher King is a movie about human flaws and redemption. In that, it’s nearly a parable.
For an ostensibly realistic film, The Fisher King swings between the sublime and the horrible remarkably smoothly. A large portion of this is due to Parry’s instability; he has visions of a Red Knight on a fire breathing steed when his assumed knightly persona is threatened, brief snippets of the apparition appearing truly frightening. On the other end of his madness, a scene of Grand Central Terminal transforming into a massive, graceful waltz when he sees his lady love are equally as astounding and transformative. And Gilliam deserves credit not just for that, but for succeeding in that rarest of tasks, reigning in Williams enough to give the kind of performance he’s capable of. Gilliam was canny enough to realize that the rambling, hyper babble that Williams convinced the world was comedy was better reframed as the grating jabbering of a lunatic, and found him a role that perfectly suited it. Particularly when paired with Bridges at his dourest, it’s a remarkable bit of cinematic jiu-jitsu to turn Williams’ most irritating persona into a perfectly natural part of his character.
The Fisher King often stands out in Gilliam’s body of work in its seeming simplicity. It doesn’t have the Orwellian grandeur and stomach-twisting climax of Brazil (1985) or the boundless, logic-skipping energy of Time Bandits (1981). Compared to those two films, it’s sentimental and even moralizing at times. But it’s a remarkable, beautiful story of how friendship can heal two mutually damaged people. More than that, it’s about how belief in innocence, whether it’s merited or not, can be as good as the real thing. Gilliam hasn’t made another movie like The Fisher King, but he doesn’t need to. Like the Grail Parry is seeking, it’s a movie that looks simple on the surface, but becomes much more in the telling.