Though it contains some apparently surreal moments, THE FISHER KING, the 1991 film written by Richard LaGravenese and directed by Terry Gilliam, often captures how urban life actually feels: by turns beautiful and ugly, expansive and confining. The New York City of THE FISHER KING is the perfect backdrop for a story about characters brought low by fate and searching for healing. It’s a particularly bruised fairy tale, and it works so well because its monsters – selfishness, grief, and bad luck among them – are fearsome and real.
Jeff Bridges plays Jack, our very flawed hero. When the film begins, Jack is blinkered by ambition and self-absorption. He’s a popular radio personality looking to parlay his chat show success into an acting career, and he’s mostly indifferent to the suffering of those around him. For instance, he makes a joke of Edwin Malnick, a lonely frequent caller looking for relationship advice. Malnick turns Jack’s life upside down when he goes on a shooting spree – seemingly as a result of Jack’s assertion that yuppies are “evil” and “must be stopped.”
In the film’s opening scene, Gilliam boxes Jack into a small radio booth where the shadows on the walls resemble the bars of a prison cell. The visual is appropriate – Jack is imprisoned by his inability to see past himself and recognize the humanity of others. The mass murder perpetrated by Malnick derails Jack’s career but doesn’t wake him up to other people’s pain; it just drives him into misanthropy, bitterness, and self-pity. As a clerk at the video store owned by his girlfriend Anne (played by a wonderful Mercedes Ruehl), Jack lashes out at a customer who says she’s desperate for a funny movie. “I hate desperate people,” he tells Anne, obviously thinking of Malnick. Jack’s sense of guilt is of course at the root of his anger and his urge to withdraw from society. Just before the shooting, Jack is prepping to audition for a sitcom where his character’s catchphrase is, “Forgive me!” After the shooting, Jack truly is searching for forgiveness, but he isn’t sure who can grant it. His journey of healing finally begins when he meets Parry, a homeless man whose wife was among Malnick’s victims.
Parry is played by Robin Williams, who throughout his career took on many roles that aligned with his image as a high-energy quipster, and many others that actively subverted that image. His turn as Parry in THE FISHER KING does a bit of both, and the results are compelling. When Parry first appears, he’s all silly voices and jokes, despite the dire reality of his and Jack’s situation. Yet the more we learn about Parry, the better we understand the deep sadness that runs through his character. A former Hunter College professor so traumatized by witnessing his wife’s violent death that he’s had to concoct a new persona (and a bizarre quest to go with it) just to sustain himself, Parry is terrorized by visions of an approaching “Red Knight” every time he begins to remember his past. Williams makes these fits of terror heartbreakingly real, and a moment late in the film where Parry gratefully submits to the Knight’s attack is deeply chilling. Parry is a character who could easily become overly precious – a homeless man brimming with apparent joie de vivre could certainly descend into the saccharine and the cliché. Indeed, when a producer pitches Jack a part in a series called Home Free, “a comedy about the homeless,” the film invites us to imagine its worse possible self. But Gilliam, LaGravenese and Williams refuse to let us forget Parry’s pain, and the film is much richer as a result.
When Jack meets Parry, his world begins to open up. If Jack’s initial state of mind is best represented by the shadowy, claustrophobic radio booth, Parry’s influence is best represented by Central Park, the urban green space where he urges Jack to strip naked and imagine that he can break apart clouds with his mind. Parry is nearly ruined by the enormity of his grief, but he has no trouble recognizing the beauty in the world around him or in feeling empathy toward others – be it Amanda Plummer as his clumsy, mousey crush Lydia, or Michael Jeter as the frail, homeless cabaret singer who wails, “I want a debutante on a horse to step on me!” Through his interactions with Parry, Jack makes the slow realization that he cannot simply forget or buy off his troubles, and that the best way to try to heal himself is to try to heal someone else.
Film critic Rumsey Taylor has argued that THE FISHER KING “is not concerned with redemption in as much as the possibility of such,” depicting the changes in its characters “with nuance and modesty.” I tend to agree with that assessment. Though THE FISHER KING is an affecting film about recovering from pain, as well as one of the most optimistic pictures ever helmed by Gilliam, it’s still grounded in reality. At one point, Anne says, “Love conquers all,” a phrase many film buffs associate with the notorious, studio-preferred cut of Gilliam’s BRAZIL that featured a happy ending. In THE FISHER KING, Anne quickly undercuts the phrase, saying, “I don’t mean us, I don’t mean us. I mean everybody else.” Like Anne, THE FISHER KING carries some doubt about whether happy endings can really stick. Somewhat paradoxically, that touch of gritty skepticism is what makes it work so well.