Whether you agree with me or not, the 1990’s were an amazing decade of titanic hit and sinking duds at the movies. (I know, the puns bad.) For me, the coolest, if not the best film, of the nineties was arguably Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The worst? Surely it has to be Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) or Batman and Robin (1997) starring George Clooney. But somewhere in between are the forgotten gems that we all wound up forgetting. Yes, these are the lost or underrated films I often watch on my own that none of my friends ever give a second thought to. There are, of course, too many to mention, and my forthcoming series is only a snapshot of some of those films that sorely deserve some sort of recognition. That said, my approach to this article is simple. I will take one film from every year of the nineties that I truly appreciate (for whatever reason) and believe merits mention. Without further ado, The Fisher King (1991) is my second film installment in my mixed bag of underrated movies of the 1990’s.
The Fisher King (1991)
I’m not quite sure whether The Fisher King belongs entirely in this series, so I quizzed my friends and asked them to name three Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges films worthy of a movie night. I received an eclectic mix of responses and it’s safe to say no one mentioned Terry Gilliam’s wonderful comedy-drama about two men whose lives are both tied by a tragic connection and are consequently in need of redemption. It seems like an absolute shame that a very likeable film in The Fisher King can be forgotten particular because at the time of its release it was hailed by critics for its humour, inventiveness, romance and tragedy all rolled into one. Today, I still believe Terry Gilliam’s wonky universe set in New York has a lot to teach us about the power of the mind and our need for self-affirmation. In some dumb way, I see the film as a hero’s journey, not only of our two male protagonists in Parry (Robin Williams) and Jack (Jeff Bridges) , but the two heroines in their lives, Lydia and Anne, played by Amanda Plummer and Mercedes Ruehl.
The film’s opening scenes sees us caught up in the successful world of radio ‘shock jock’ Jack Lucas, who doesn’t mind insulting his listening audience with his melodramatic fever and insight. His caustic sense of humour and shocking manner isn’t anything new on film, a few years earlier in 1988, Oliver Stone’s acclaimed Talk Radio, hit a nerve with critics and audiences, using the same idea that a shock jock could easily rile up a listener, one that might be so unstable and push them too far to commit murder. In Oliver Stone’s film, a crazed listener does just that, gunning down its radio personality, whereas in The Fisher King, an unhinged listener is inadvertently prompted by Jeff Bridges character, to commit murder-suicide in a Manhattan restaurant. This premise sets up Bridges character to spiral into a self-loathing suicidal state, which brings him into contact with the long-suffering widow Parry, whose wife was shot in front of him by the shock jock’s gunman.
Robin Williams as Parry is brilliant, portraying a tortured man, unable to cope with life after the murder of his wife. In a state of madness, Parry turned to the streets of New York, living among his homeless new friends, a world far away from being a college teacher and expert on the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. It is beneath the Manhattan Bridge that Parry saves a suicidal Jack (Bridges) from a gang of thugs, and as we soon discover needs Jack’s help to steal the mythical Holy Grail from the possession of a Manhattan billionaire. It becomes apparent soon after that Parry and Jack need each other, especially Jack who believes if he somehow helps or saves Parry from his delusions, he will redeem himself as a person.
The film does an incredible job of visually communicating mental illness, maybe the film’s truly underlining theme. Without giving too much away, the unexpected Central Station waltz scene, for instance, is evidence of Parry’s warped view of the world. He lives in this fantasy state to protect himself from the harsh reality of the real world. But every now and then, he is reminded of his past life and tragedy symbolised by a frightening ‘Red Knight’ on a horse with flames shooting from his head. It is a horrible pain that Parry cannot escape from.
Robin Williams had to that point in his career shown us a glimpse of his deft abilities at drama in films like Dead Poet Society (1989) and the incredibly moving Awakenings (1990), an earlier film that also dealt with the disorder known as catatonia. What is interesting with Robin Williams choice to back up again with another film about human struggle and mental illness is his innate ability to relate to the dark side of our nature as people. That said, he arguably steals the show playing against type – against his goofy, outrageous self, something that I really believe is refreshing to see from the late great actor. As Robin Williams loses himself in the role of Parry, with enough fits and burst of comedic genius, he is for the most part in a dark place as an actor.
What makes this film enjoyable is the fanciful tale about the Parry’s quest for the Holy Grail and his smitten obsession for a socially awkward woman named Lydia, played by Amanda Plummer. The idea of romance in Terry Gilliam’s world inevitability lightens the mood of the film and allows Jack (Bridges) to play ‘big brother’ helping Parry to find love again. In one of the funniest sequences of the film, Jack pulls out all the stops, by employing one of Parry’s homeless friends, to sing a cringe-worthy telegram to Lydia at her place of employment, offering her a free membership to Anne’s video store, which is all part of the scheme to push Parry and Lydia together. Still on the subject of romance, inadvertently I believe, Jack also finally sorts out his own feelings for Anne, who has put up far too long with Jack’s wallow in self-pity. Interestingly, Mercedes Ruehl would receive an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Anne. Her strong performance helped anchor the film with her dependable presence, wit and ultimately her love for Jack. In a way, she too goes through hell and back emotionally with her patience with Jack.
If The Fisher King falls into the category of underrated films of the 1990’s, then also we must find Jeff Bridges in the same boat, which is ultimately a shame. In my humble opinion, I believe this is one of Jeff Bridges best performances because like Robin Williams, he plays a character against type – whose almost impossible to like, right up to the end, when he finally lets down his guard allowing the people most important to him into his life. His selfless act at trying to steal the mythical Holy Grail from a billionaire’s urban castle for a catatonic induced Parry is heartwarming and frightening at the same time. Without spoiling the ending, we begin to warm to Jack, as he reaches for the almost out of reach Holy Grail (tucked up on a shelf), a symbol now not only of Parry’s quest for redemption and forgiveness, but also his own.
For all of the film’s humane qualities, one of the harsher criticisms of The Fisher King that always comes to mind is its over-reliance of fantasy or escapism. I hate to tell you but this is a Terry Gilliam film! He is renowned for his exploration of ‘magic realism’. And as entertainment, I think Gilliam has nonetheless created a truly wonderfully eccentric film, even if at times it feels disjointed and film’s ending is just a little predictable for some. In short, the Fisher King should be on everyone’s list as a movie night film.
Photo credit: The header movie still image from the film The Fisher King (1991) is courtesy of Tri Star Pictures. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone by placing one of key characters of the film, played by actor Robin Williams into the frame. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded.