I’m currently in the early stages of compiling a list of the Top 10 Robin Williams performances, in memory of someone who I consider to be one of the greatest performers on film of the past 30+ years.
Although I am well-versed in Williams’ career, there remained a few gaps in my critical spectrum of his career; and the most glaring was this: The Fisher King. Not only is it an obvious gap because of the acclaim the performance he gave got, but also because it’s the work of a filmmaker I greatly admire, that of Terry Gilliam.
You would think, me being the way I am, that a film made by a former Python, and starring Robin Williams would have been worn out through re-plays by now, but for some reason, it has always evaded me. There are films that I want to watch, but never actually end up seeing, despite my best interests, and this is one such film, so I was glad of an excuse to finally cross it off the list.
Set in New York, this modern fairy tale sees a depressed former ‘shock jock’ radio DJ Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) whose actions and regret lead him to meet a deranged homeless man called Parry (Williams) who believe himself to be on a quest for the Holy Grail.
First off, I must congratulate Gilliam for having the restraint to have made a film that features the Holy Grail without extended references to the eponymous Python flick. What fortuitous circumstances leads him to make two films about the Holy Grail, while not making them feel alike in the slightest.
Describing this film as modern fairy tale may put a certain impression of innocence and light into your mind, let me put those feelings to rest. This is not your typical fairy tale, it barely resembles one at all in fact; it’s dark, it’s coated in misery, and has a feeling of dirt and grit that come with the grungy New York setting.
One trademark of Gilliam’s is surrealism, especially in visuals, this is the man responsible for the Python’s bizarre animations after all, and his films follow a similar pattern, but this film seems to seamlessly marry Gilliam’s surrealism with a hyper-realistic setting, using the stranger aspects to explain more abstract concepts, such as mental stability, he can indulge his fancies and work it in well with the underlying parables of psychosis, making them a study of how a broken mind can see the world.
It’s surprisingly emotional to see these delusions masquerading as surreal myth, played out by incredibly human characters, recognisable figures of people whose minds have suffered terrible trauma, it’s an incredibly brave move, for sure, but also an effective one.
The effects of the delusions on the characters aren’t cartoonish either, they’re harrowingly realistic. Flashbacks of the real-world are mixed with the imagined and create a terrifying landscape of a mind that seems so lost, yet at its most lucid, is so brilliant.
I’m skirting around the actual contents of these visions, as I have a feeling I’m going to recommend this film at the end of this review, and spoiling a film isn’t my bag on this site, no matter its age, but suffice to say they are integrated with Gilliam’s trademark imagination and verve.
As a whole, the film does wander to different plot points, it establishes Parry’s delusions of being on a quest from God, then also makes a great effort to humanise him by giving him an unexpected love story some ways into the film, and it’s this human side that eventually thaws Jack’s self-loathing (and general loathing, to be honest) and endears him to his new companion.
The twist as to Parry’s actual identity is somewhat predictable, given what the opening acts events, which are presented with great urgency, but is nonetheless well thought-out and fitting, especially in giving Jack a redemption story as the film goes on, therefore making him more palatable to the audience, as prior to this, there is very little to like about him.
Speaking of Jack, he is ably brought to life by the ever-dependable Jeff Bridges; it’s probably one of his best performances, all told. Jack is self-absorbed, arrogant and incredibly boorish, and yet, there is something redeeming deep down from an audience stand-point, which tells us that we should keep watching, we as an audience know that he is being set up to be redeemed down the line, and by starting him as unlikable as possible makes his eventual change of character all the sweeter. Think of Scrooge, and why his character change is so drastic, it’s because of the emotional journey he goes on, and it’s a similar story here.
Of course, the real draw of the piece here is Williams, who, as he so often did, goes far beyond anyone’s expectations.
His character starts out as his usual fare, at least on the surface, he’s fast-talking and crazed, with the wild kind of look that he pulls off like no-one else. Over time, however, his character grows more nuanced, and much more complex.
I think the best way to accurately describe his character here is by mixing together his performances in Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting, accompanied by a dash of the Genie from Aladdin. He takes parts of his best performances and mixes them into a melting pot, producing this ‘Greatest Hits’ type of performance. There’s no wonder he earned an Oscar nomination for his part here.
It is more than a two-horse show though, as the film’s only Oscar win in the acting department went to Mercedes Ruehl, who portrayed Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend Anne, who is string along with him for his adventure with Parry, and who brings the constant reminders of reality to a story that occasionally wanders into the fanciful.
As a whole film, there’s much I loved about The Fisher King, both Bridges and Williams give wonderful performances, Gilliam’s builds a cohesive world that exists somewhere between the surreal and the realistic, and wraps it up with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion that really wraps the film up in a nice little bow.
A treat for Williams fans, Gilliam fans, and film fans in particular, The Fisher King is a surprisingly deep, and sometimes harrowing, account of the mind at its most damaged, and the human spirit of survival.