The Fisher King [Retro Review]

“There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.”

The Scoop: 1991 R, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, and Mercedes Ruehl

Tagline: A Modern Day Tale About The Search For Love, Sanity, Ethel Merman And The Holy Grail.

Summary Capsule: Stop me if you’ve heard this one- a radio DJ, a video store owner, and a homeless lunatic walk into a bar, looking for the Holy Grail…


Drew’s Rating: If I were mentally unstable, I think I’d go questing for the Spear of Destiny. Just to be different.

Drew’s Review: True story: I took a course in college, Abnormal Psychology, where we watched movies for half the class. I’m not exaggerating… literally, at least half our class time was spent watching films related to the subject, from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to Girl, Interrupted. I never quite figured out if the professor was a brilliant innovator or just lazy, but if nothing else it was a nice reprieve from boring lectures. And of all the films we watched that semester, the one I found most enjoyable was The Fisher King, a dramatic comedy not nearly as well known as I’d have expected given its director, cast, and awards. But hey, that’s what we’re here for, right?

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) was your typical radio shock jock: abrasive, sarcastic, filled with contempt for his fellow man. He was also on his way to the top, with thousands of fans and a pending sitcom deal… that is, until his callous remarks led a disturbed listener to bring a shotgun into a crowded restaurant and open fire. Three years later, Jack is a changed man — more specifically, he’s a despondent, alcoholic video store clerk mooching off his girlfriend (Mercedes Ruehl). But when his life is saved by Parry (Robin Williams), a delusional homeless man on a quest for the Holy Grail, Jack investigates his new friend’s condition and learns the terrible truth: he was a respected college professor until his wife was killed in the very rampage Jack precipitated. Horrified, Jack tries his best to help Parry out… but is he doing it for the right reasons? Or simply to assuage his own guilt?

A major part of what makes King work is the tone, for which director Terry Gilliam has to be credited. It’s a very tough line to tread between drama and comedy, and trying to include fantasy elements as well only complicates matters. And yet, somehow all the facets are perfectly balanced — there’s some hilarious lines, but it’s not a comedy. There’s plenty of whimsy, but the movie remains fairly grounded. The subject matter is weighty and disturbing, but you don’t walk away feeling sick. Not surprisingly to fans of his other work, Gilliam weaves these disparate aspects together skillfully, so that rarely if ever do you feel like one dominates over the others. The cinematography is also nice, with some innovative camera work during Parry’s, um, less lucid moments.

Of course, much of the credit is also due to the incredibly rich, talented cast. Robin Williams earned dramatic praise for Good Will Hunting, but he’s at least as impressive as a deranged transient out to steal the Holy Grail… that is, when he’s not fleeing an imaginary Red Knight or mooning over Lydia, the (un)tattooed lady. As for Mercedes Ruehl, I’d love to say that no woman in the world would put up with half the sh-… oddy treatment Anne takes from Jack (my wife would defenestrate me, that’s for sure), but experience sadly tells me otherwise; it’s a very realistic portrait of a woman so in love with a loser that she’ll excuse his endless faults. (Though I doubt most women in those circumstances are as strong willed as Anne seems to be.) In that vein, there’s a couple of scenes near the end where you’ll absolutely despise Jack, and possibly yourself for ever liking him. Still, it’s a testament to Jeff Bridges’ acting that he can 1) portray such an a-hole so believably, and 2) still make you hope for him to get back on track, at least a little. That can’t have been easy.

That’s not to imply King is a perfect movie. Like most films on the subject, it sometimes falls into the trap of showing mental illness as a mildly inconvenient state of mind that makes you say quirky things, at least until you fall in love. (See: Benny & Joon.) Also, not to belabor the point, but Jack’s character is so unlikeable at times that you’re hard-pressed to relate or root for him… probably why I don’t like Howard Stern either. Seriously, if you ever need convincing that suicide is motivated by selfishness, not empathy, Jack’s got you covered. And there’s some definite deus ex moments at the end. But those are minor complaints in the face of an excellent dramatic comedy that truly has something to say, yet never fails to entertain along the way. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Geez, is it Al's birthday already?

Intermission!

  • Jack’s catchphrase from the sitcom — “Forgive me!” — that he keeps practicing but can’t seem to get right? Wonder if there’s any deeper meaning there…
  • I swear Kevin Smith saw this before writing the “annoying video store customers” scene from Clerks.
  • Robin Williams is SO hairy. We really need fewer movies where he’s bare-ass naked, not more.
  • Waltzing in Grand Central Station? The main terminal was shut down from 8:00 PM to 5:30 the next morning (when the trains start running… don’t ask how I know that) in order to film the scene.
  • Tracts of land, dishes… is there anything the Monty Python guys don’t use as a euphemism for boobs?
  • While singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Robin Williams changes “Stonewall Jackson” to “Michael Jackson,” apparently to be more topical.
  • This is the first Terry Gilliam movie not to feature any other members of Monty Python. It’s also his second movie dealing with the Holy Grail, after (natch) Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  • The character of Jack Lucas was modeled after Howard Stern. Supposedly filmmakers asked Stern for tapes from his show to study, but he wanted to be hired as a consultant instead; when they declined, he refused to turn over any tapes.
  • In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King was charged with guarding the castle containing the Holy Grail, but had suffered horrible injuries that rendered both he and his kingdom crippled and infertile. (T.S. Elliot drew on this symbolism extensively in “The Waste Land.”) Because of his inability to walk, the King spent his days fishing while the land fell into disrepair; it was said he could only be healed by Perceval, a knight of the Round Table who was questing for the Grail. At alternate times during the movie, Jack and Parry seem to each fill in for the King and Perceval, but the obvious connection is Parry (aka Parsifal, an alternate spelling of Perceval) bringing healing and redemption to Jack.

Groovy Quotes

Anne: You used to say that you liked that about me. You used to say you liked that we could just be together, and not have to… think.
Jack: Suicidal paranoiacs will say anything to get laid.

Jack: I don’t mean to be flippant or to enrage you, but you’re a psychotic man.
Parry: I know.
Jack: A very nice psychotic man.
Parry: Thank you.

Parry: There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.

Parry: Come on, Jack. What do you think the Crusades were? The Pope’s publicity stunt?

Anne: I don’t believe that God made Man in His image. ‘Cause most of the [crap] that happens comes from Man. No, I think Man was made in the Devil’s image, and women were created out of God. ‘Cause after all, women can have babies, which is kind of like creating. And which also accounts for the fact that women are so attracted to men… ’cause let’s face it, the Devil is a hell of a lot more interesting. Believe me, I’ve slept with some saints in my day, I know what I’m talking about. So the whole point in life is for men and women to get married, so that God and the Devil can get together and work it out.

Homeless Vet: He’s payin’ so he don’t have to look. See… guy goes to work every day, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Gets his nuts so tight in a vise that he starts questioning the very fabric of his existence. Then one day, ’bout quittin’ time, boss calls him into the office and says, “Hey Bob, why don’tcha come on in here and kiss my ass for me, will you?” Well, he says, “Hell with it. I don’t care what happens, I just want to see the expression on his face as I jab this pair of scissors into his arm.” Then he thinks of me. He says, “Waitaminnit. I got both my arms, I got both my legs. At least I ain’t begging for a living.” Sure enough, Bob’s gonna put those scissors down and pucker right up. See, I’m what you call kind of a moral traffic light, really. I’m like sayin’, “Red! Go no further!”

Jack: No one lies naked in a field in New York, it’s too Midwestern.

Parry: Jack, who are you talking to?
Jack: I’m talking to the little people!
Parry: Are they here?!
Jack: They’re saying, “Jack, go to the nearest liquor store, findeth the Jack of Daniels that ye may be [crap]faced!”

Jack: Where would King Arthur have been without Guinevere?
Parry: Happily married, probably.
Jack: Well that’s a bad… that’s a bad example.

Parry: This food is delicious, Anne. You’re a wonderful cook and you’ve got a great set of… dishes.

Jack: Great, now I’m hearing horses. Parry will be so pleased!

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Reign Over Me
  • Benny & Joon
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
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4 Comments

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