While it can sometimes be a little frustrating, I really love when I come across years during this project that lead to really difficult decisions. It’s easiest when I can just look at a year and find a movie that wins out as my favorite film with no real competition, because I don’t have to really reckon with anything, and can just get going. But, every now and then I find myself in a situation where I have to revisit several movies in order to ascertain which one I should highlight. And, weirdly, 1991 has become one of the more difficult years that I’ve had to tackle. Because there were three movies that seemed to me to be slam dunks, leading to a really hard battle. 1991 gave us a lot of terrific movies which are worth your time, not including the big three I had to fight myself over. John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood is a fascinating look at gang violence, and the socio-economic realities of black communities at the time, and while I originally saw the film in an academic setting, it still remains a very engaging and powerful film. The Coen Brothers continued to expand their abilities and cement their status as two of the finest living filmmakers by giving us the fascinatingly strange and somewhat obtuse Barton Fink. I suppose we could have talked about some paranoid conspiracy theories with Oliver Stone’s JFK. And, hey, who doesn’t love the Rocketeer? No one, that’s who. But, when it became time to pick a movie to highlight for 1991, it all came down to a very strange trio. Silence of the Lambs, The Fisher King, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As you can see, the Fisher King won, which is maybe a littler surprising, especially considering the enormous impact that the other two movies have had on American cinematic audiences. And, I love all three movies. Silence of the Lambs is a true masterpiece of suspense, giving us some of the most unnerving serial killer stories of all time. And, Terminator 2 is a pure nostalgic joy. I hadn’t seen it in years before revisiting for this, and was pleasantly surprised at how fun and schlocky the movie still is, while delivering a truly satisfying action experience. But, when I rewatched the Fisher King, I knew that I had to talk about it. Because, not matter how many time I’ve seen it, I always forget what a special little film it is.
I’m a little surprised that this is the first time that I’ve discussed Terry Gilliam on this project, because I’ve always been a fan of his bigger and weirder films that came before this one. Unfortunately, general audiences don’t share that opinion, and after the failure of The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, Gilliam found himself in a tough spot. He’d always told himself that he’d never make a movie that he didn’t write, and would never work for a major studio. And yet, after a string of financial failures, Gilliam was forced to give up both of these principles when he agrees to take on the Fisher King, a script that he had nothing to do with. But, Gilliam seemed to recognize the need to show that he could still make a movie that could come in at budget and make money, so he set out to make his most human film yet, eschewing most of the larger than life elements that have become so recognizable with his brand to create a movie that certainly stands out in his filmography, while remaining one of my favorites. Which doesn’t mean that it was a smooth production. The film required a lot from its actors and crew, who had to deal with disgruntled New Yorkers, Robin Williams’ uncertainty about how comedic to play the character, and a decision to plan a massive dream-like dance number. The film certainly didn’t seem like a sure thing, with so many strange elements working against it. And yet, the film did do rather well. It was a moderate financial success, and was quite critically accepted, earning the type of awards that Gilliam’s films usually never were nominated for. But, I feel like it’s largely left off of may discussions of Gilliam’s work, primarily because it’s such an outlier to his career. But, it’s a heartbreakingly powerful film that I highly recommend people checking out.
The Fisher King gives us the story of Jack Lucas, a brash radio DJ in New York City who makes a living as a shock-jock, just insulting people. Things seem to be going great for Jack, until one day he tells a frequent caller to get revenge on the yuppies ruining their city. Which, turns out to have been enough to push the man over the edge, leading to him shooting up a popular restaurant, and leading people to blame Jack and his antics, which devastates his life. The film jumps ahead three years to find Jack a bitter alcoholic, living with his girlfriend Anne above a video rental store she owns. Jack’s life has been an absolute mess, and he just doesn’t seem able to get out of his own self-pity to attempt to find a new way of life, just wallowing in misery, much to the irritation of Anne. And, after a night of drinking and anger, Jack walks out into the night and starts contemplating suicide. He ends up at the waterfront, and is attacked by a pair of thugs looking to apparently kill a homeless person. Jack is almost lit on fire by the men, but is saved at the last moment by a homeless man who is dressed somewhat like a medieval serf, and who is talking about quests. He fights the men off, and brings Jack back to a gathering of homeless people, getting Jack even drunker before ending up at the man’s dwelling. The next day Jack wakes up in the boiler room of an apartment complex, which is where the man who saved him lives. His name is Parry, and he explains to Jack that he was visited a few years ago by a group of magical beings who have tasked him with locating the Holy Grail, and that he’s decided that Jack is necessary to accomplish this.
Jack is obviously quite put off by Parry, and flees from the apartment building to return home. Anne is horrified at what happened to him, but Jack finds himself really worried about Parry, feeling like he owes him for saving his life. And, that feeling just gets even bigger when Jack learns the truth about Parry. He was once a teacher named Henry Sagan, and he was at the restaurant that was shot up thanks to Jack, and his wife was killed in front of him, throwing him into this state of mental delusion. So, Jack decides that he needs to redeem himself, and that by helping Parry he’ll fix any bad karma that has been ruining his life ever since that fateful day. And, he initially attempts to accomplish this by just giving Parry money. But, in the process of failing to do this, he learns that Parry is obsessed with a woman named Lydia who he essentially stalks every single day. Parry follows this lonely woman every day during her lunch break, and has decided that they’re soul-mates. So, finding an easier way to help Parry that helping him rob a random rich man he thinks has the Holy Grail, Jack starts to try and get Parry and Lydia together. Anne decides the help, and the two concoct a fake contest that Lydia wins, bringing her to the video store so Parry can meet her. And, despite the realization that Lydia is very odd and somewhat unpleasant, they continue to try and push the two together, culminating in a double date.
Jack and Anne are shocked at what a nice time Parry and Lydia have at dinner, and think that their plan has worked. However, in reality, things don’t go well for Parry. Lydia and he do share a moment, but that moment causes Parry to start remembering what happened to his late wife, causing him to envision a demonic Red Knight, which leads to him having a mental breakdown that leaves him in a catatonic state, and brought to a mental hospital. Jack doesn’t realize this, because he’s assumed that now that Parry had found love he was off the hook. Jack dumps Anne and gets ready to restart his life, setting up a meeting in the hopes of getting a new radio show, and potentially a new TV show. However, when that meeting revolves around a show that mocks homeless people, Jack finds himself put off, and decides to go find Parry. Which, takes him to Parry’s hospital bed. Jack feels terrible for having written Parry off so quickly, and decides that he needs to redeem himself. So, Jack goes and takes some of Parry’s notes and equipment, and decides to break into the home of a famous architect, whose mansion is shaped like a castle, in order to steal a trophy that Parry has decided is the Holy Grail. Jack steals the trophy, and with it is able to lure Parry out of his catatonic state, and back to his jovial self. Parry and Lydia reconnect, Jack and Anne get back together, and Jack has learned to actually think about other people and they all live happily ever after.
When I first saw the Fisher King it was thanks to a burgeoning love for the work of Terry Gilliam. I didn’t know anything about it, and found myself a little put off by how grounded it was, especially when compared to Gilliam’s other films. But, at the same time, I was really drawn into the story, and the sheer humanity that it demonstrates. I’ve always been a fan of both Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, and I legitimately think that this film may contain some of their best performances. Williams is certainly much more restrained than he typically was, especially during this time period, and I really think this may be my absolute favorite performance of his, giving Parry a shocking amount of depth with what so easily could have been a stereotype. And, while I don’t have much experience outside this film with Amanda Plummer and Mercedes Ruehl, they’re both terrific in the film, playing off each other and their romantic partners wonderfully. It’s kind of shocking that Terry Gilliam, a creator so identified with incredibly heightened and surreal films was able to make a movie like this, so grounded and human, and make it work so well. He gives into an occasional flourish, like the Red Knight and the whole Grand Central Station dance sequence, but for the most part he tells a deeply human and moving story that just really hits me in a way that’s hard to explain.
Redemption is a concept that’s tackled pretty frequently in cinema, because people really seem to worry quite a bit about the possibility that they’re bad, but able to be better. However, redemption isn’t an easy thing. Which is something that this movie tackles beautifully. Jack Lucas is not a great guy. He led a life of hedonism and narcissism, essentially making a living mocking people and punching down. And, when his actions finally lead to disaster, he takes it as some form of unjust punishment. He wasn’t the actual person shooting up that restaurant, so he makes himself out to be a victim, someone whose life was destroyed for something he couldn’t even control. But, when he meets Parry he finally starts to see the ramification of his actions, and realizes that they affection people other than him. But, Jack’s response is to redeem himself by doing what he thinks is best for Parry. From the very beginning Parry makes it clear that he wants help in his quest, and Jack just kind of ignores that and forces Parry into the position of romancing Lydia. And, that ends up leading to his complete collapse. But, by that point Jack realizes that if he really want to redeem himself, he needs to do what Parry needs. He stops making it all about himself, and his own redemption, and just tries to do something for a fellow human being, and a friend. And, through that, he finally does what he set out to do, and proves that it’s possible for him to be a better person.
The Fisher King was written by Richard LeGravenese, directed by Terry Gilliam, and released by TriStar Pictures, 1991.
Categories: Cinematic Century