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Revisit: The Fisher King

Revisit: The Fisher King

The Fisher King is a story about pain and sympathy.

Once upon a time, way back in 1991, Monty Python-alum Terry Gilliam directed The Fisher King, a modern-day fairy tale starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, a story about madness, loss and redemption set in New York City. Facing a directorial crisis after the absolute flop of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Gilliam turned his back on the fantasy worlds of prior successes Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1988) by firmly placing The Fisher King within the confines of the corporeal world. This decision paid off in spades, as The Fisher King is not only the director’s finest effort but also sports one of Williams’ best performances.

In the film’s prologue, we meet Jack Lucas (Bridges) a shock-jock in the style of Howard Stern and Don Imus. Jack has it all: a successful radio show, a beautiful girlfriend and a penthouse apartment. He is even up for the lead in a new sitcom. Like Stern and Imus, Jack’s career is predicated on the negative. His hatred knows no limits as he rails against the moral rot he sees eating away at the center of society. One evening, Jack counsels a listener, a nebbish who frequently calls in, to go out and kill the yuppie scum he sees destroying everything America stand for. The listener takes his advice and shoots up a restaurant. Say goodbye to your career, Jack Lucas.

Gilliam shot The Fisher King as New York City pulled itself out of the excess of the ‘80s, the decade of greed that Oliver Stone skewered in Wall Street. It was a time and place where brokers wearing Rolex watches co-existed with a robust homeless population. Although the two groups lived side by side in the same city, it’s almost as if they existed on two different planes. It’s no surprise that Jack, now a drunk who works in a video store, observes one of these homeless men shouting, “I’m right here!” as he panhandles in front of a posh hotel. They are invisible, faceless. “The bungled and the botched,” Jack calls them, by way of Nietzche. And ever since his fall from grace, Jack has now become one of them.

During one of his drunken rambles, Jack is mistaken for a homeless person and attacked by a pair of youths. Beaten and doused with gasoline, Jack looks like he’s a goner until he is saved by Parry (Williams), a self-stylized knight in a suit of armor made of trash and his band of marauding bums. Manic and loquacious and giving the type of madcap performance you’d find a Gilliam film, Parry explains to the sobering Jack that he is on a quest to find the Holy Grail. But unlike Gilliam’s prior Holy Grail adventure with the Python boys, this quest is tinged with sadness. Jack soon learns that Parry was a teacher who went insane after his wife was murdered, shot to death by the very listener Jack advised to gun down yuppies.

fisher-king-criterionThe Fisher King is a movie about how two very different men, marked by the same tragedy, find one another and unwittingly help the other heal. Both have fallen from enviable positions, situations where neither would even acknowledge the strata of the homeless with whom they share the streets of Manhattan. Jack claims that he “owes” Parry something, yet he is helping himself as much as his new companion. Even though Jack sees the Holy Grail as a ruse, he does believe he can help Parry in another arena: finding love.

Parry follows Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a shrewish, clumsy office girl each day, marking each of her actions, from buying a romance novel to her inability to get through a revolving door, with enraptured adoration. He knows that she is single and lonely, yet cannot work up the gumption to ask her on a date. Jack conscripts his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl – who won an Oscar for her role), into helping set the two of them up. Anne and Jack aren’t without their own problems, however. Anne owns the video where Jack works and feels he’s slumming it in their relationship, unable to tell her that he is in love with her, spending his days stalking around drunk and moody. Can Jack salvage his own relationship by helping Parry develop a new one?

The Fisher King is a story about pain and sympathy. Once a symbol for the greed and arrogance that marked New York in the ‘80s, Jack Lucas redeems himself by becoming a true friend to Parry, while Parry unwittingly restores Jack’s faith in humanity.

It ends like a dream. Jack and Parry lay naked, sprawled out at night on a lawn in Central Park, breaking clouds. The city’s famous skyline illuminates the scene. Fireworks light up the sky. It’s a return to a more innocent time, a time where a restaurant is appropriately shocking, not a commonplace occurrence. Gilliam achieves something here that he has been unable to replicate since. He finds the beating heart of compassion in his oddball characters, a place to hang up his cynicism in a milieu that’s anything but optimistic.

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