They are two uncontainable talents. Robin Williams is the Jumping Jack Flash of comedy, a mercurial genius who can be a fine actor when he is kept from leaping out of character. Director Terry Gilliam is a sultan of surrealist excess, known for extravaganzas of art direction and special effects. His work ranges from the brilliant satire of Brazil (1985), a baroque joke about bureaucracy, to the swashbuckling fantasy of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a $58-million balloon odyssey that never took off—it became Hollywood’s biggest moneyloser in 1989. In Munchausen, Williams performed a hilarious cameo as a disembodied man-in-the-moon. Now, he shares the lead with Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, a buddy movie about two paranoid refugees from the 1980s who meet in a subterranean homesick world beneath the streets of Manhattan.
With The Fisher King, American-born Gilliam has finally shown that he can deliver a film on time, on budget—and with generous concessions to Hollywood formula. The movie recently won a top prize at the Venice film festival and was voted most popular film by audiences at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. In a faxed acceptance speech to Toronto, Gilliam said: “Thank you very much for justifying my decision to sell out.” The comment may not be entirely facetious. The Fisher King is a sprawling compromise of a movie. Giving equal time to both the bizarre and the sentimental, it is a
comedy, a drama, a romance, a fantasy and a morality tale. Apparently, Gilliam could not decide what kind of movie to make—and threw in everything, just to be safe.
Jack (Jeff Bridges) is the selfish, smart-alec host of a radio phone-in show—almost identical to the one played by Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio (1988), Oliver Stone’s movie about a man who provokes psychopaths from the safety of a sound studio. Jack’s ego-driven career collapses after one of his regular listeners commits mass murder and suicide while invoking his name. Tormented by guilt, Jack quits his job, picks up the bottle and slides into the gutter. There, he meets Parry (Williams), who is in even worse shape. Once a happily married medieval history professor, Parry is now a lonely schizophrenic living the life of a homeless Don Quixote. Traumatized by an event in his past, he suffers terrifying hallucinations of being attacked by a flame-throwing knight on horseback.
Parry, who lives in a basement boiler room, sees himself as a white knight in the service of God’s “floating little fat people.” And he is on a quest to capture two elusive prizes: a Holy Grail and a homely girl. The damsel of Parry’s dreams is Lydia (Amanda Plummer), an illmannered and ungainly drone in a company that publishes trashy romance novels. Jack already has a girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), a video-store owner with a hooker’s wardrobe and a heart of gold. Reluctantly, she conspires with Jack in a matchmaking intrigue designed to get Parry and Lydia together.
As Jack tries to redeem himself by rehabili-
tating Parry, The Fisher King becomes the saga of an exaggerated mid-life crisis. The two women serve mainly as accessories. All four actors, however, deliver strong performances, even if they appear to be in different movies. Amid all the absurdist fantasy, Bridges acts with intense dramatic realism. He performs an emotionally charged scene with Ruehl that stands as one of the best movie breakup scenes in recent memory. Plummer, meanwhile, strikes an affecting comic pose as Lydia.
But it is Williams who carries the movie, and Gilliam lets him right off the leash. One moment he is miming the epiphany of a splendid bowel movement; the next, he is spitting out one-liners—“I’ve got a hard-on the size of Florida.” One evening, Parry drags Jack to Central Park and urges him to take off his clothes, he on the grass and stare up at the night sky. “Free up the little guy and let him flap in the breeze,” says Parry, prancing around in the nude like a New Age gnome. The sight of a furry, barrel-chested Robin Wilhams cavorting naked in Central Park is so peculiar that the point of it ah gets lost.
Gilliam has fused the problems of the lovesick, the crazy and the homeless in a romantic version of the Manhattan gutter. “You find some pretty wonderful things in the trash,” says Parry. The Fisher King is just hke that—a giant dumpster of a movie that contains some gems amid the jumble.
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