Movie Review: The Fisher King (1991)

Title: The Fisher King
Release Date: September 20, 1991
Director: Terry Gilliam
Production Company: Hill/Obst Productions

As a long-time fan of Monty Python, I eagerly anticipated the release of Python-member Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King and rushed to the theaters for its release.  The movie turned out to be the least Gilliam-esque of his movies but also one of his best. Whereas as most Gilliam movies are set in fantastical worlds, The Fisher King is grounded in the reality of late-1980s New York City, where the fantastical elements are found in the mind of Robin Williams’ character Parry.

The story tells of a drive-time shock jock, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), whose rant against yuppies is interpreted by a listener as instructions to carry out a mass shooting at an upscale Manhattan restaurant.  Three years later, Jack is no longer a radio star but down on his luck and depressed, supported by his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) who employs him at her video store.  Reaching rock bottom, Jack attempts suicide but is saved by Parry, a homeless man who has delusions of being a knight of the round table on the grail quest. Jack learns that Parry’s psychotic break was caused by witnessing his wife’s murder in the mass shooting. Parry’s repressed memories of the trauma are represented by visions of a terrifying Red Knight.

Jack decides that he can redeem himself by helping Parry meet a woman he’s attracted to, the awkward Lydia (Amanda Plummer).  But the movie turns out to be about a whole lot more than redemption. First, it is a story of grief, trauma, and depression and how it manifests itself differently in our two lead characters.  Williams performance is particularly saddening after his real life depression lead to his own suicide.  The movie also subtly is a commentary on homeless and the great inequality in cities like New York, particular in a monologue delivered by Tom Waits in a cameo as a disabled veteran. While most of the movie is carried by Bridges’ and Williams’ excellent performances, Ruehl deservedly received Best Supporting Actress for her great contributions.

The Fisher King is both thoughtful and very funny.  It has great scenes that demonstrate Gilliam’s penchant for the fantastical and surreal, particularly one where the commuters at Grand Central Terminal join in a massive waltz to represent Parry’s infatuation with Lydia. The music in the film is spot on from Snap’s “The Power” as the motif of Jack at his most prestigious and most heartless to Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “How About You?” representing Parry’s magical view of New York.  And of course the show stopper is Michael Jeter’s impersonation of Ethel Merman.

The Fisher King remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: *****

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