Skip to main content

There's nothing trashy about romance.

The Fisher King
(1991)

(SPOILERS) The Terry Gilliam film everyone loves, especially those who aren’t Terry Gilliam fans. Often claimed as his best picture, it’s one he himself says he made “in the real world”. Which is true, if you consider the real world to be composed of a slightly less sugary Hollywood confection than usual. The Fisher King finds the director making an “acceptable” film. Which is basically one the critics can fully embrace as he navigates the path he is expected to navigate when going the studio route, with a very conservative sprinkling of his own idiosyncrasy. It is essentially, fine. It’s likeable, whimsical, feel-good. Which means it finds Gilliam losing his edge.

I was never The Fisher King’s greatest fan, but revisiting it only reconfirms its flaws; it hasn’t aged very well, and if it managed to get by on Gilliam adding his own frisson to a traditional romance, that’s only relatively the case. For all the presence of homelessness, mental illness, AIDS and crushing guilt, Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is largely toothless. I’d wager the line about Jack’s sitcom, “It’s a weekly comedy about the homeless. It’s not depressing in any way” is only in there as a self-conscious way of saying “We’re not that, fingers crossed” (this was, after all, a production that managed to make a pig’s ear of involving the homeless in its making).

Gilliam talks of how he went and got himself an agent, willing worked from someone else’s script, in America, and gave up final cut; all the things he swore he wouldn’t do. He purposely sold out to make a point. But the sell out is actually that he actively succumbs to the clichés of “truthful” storytelling. Which only makes it slightly less shameless than the prime offenders he would usually gleefully eviscerate. Perhaps the core problem is that The Fisher King is conceptually trite in its journey of forgiveness and healing, contriving to mash up a fairy tale and realism as if that’s possible or even a remotely good idea; Gilliam is so keen to prove he has the required skillset in dealing with depth of character that he ends up exposing how shallow the material is.

You have a Howard Stern shock jock Jack (Jeff Bridges) who develops a conscience and a drink habit when one of his listeners embarks on a massacre in a Manhattan restaurant; three years later, Parry (Robin Williams), who lost his wife in the killing, saves Jack from thugs. Parry believes he’s on a quest to find the Holy Grail (the instant lure to Gilliam) and Jack comes to the conclusion he may be able to find some kind of atonement if he brings Parry together with the girl he dotes over (Amanda Plummer’s Lydia). Jack in turn is doted over by brassy Anne (Mercedes Ruehl).

There’s nothing authentic about the conception, which isn’t a problem in itself, except that it means The Fisher King can’t support the “real” emotion Gilliam and LaGravenese try to foist upon it. There’s no substance to its depiction of the homeless, less still its main characters. Bridges is very good, very grounded and credible. But Jack has no edge. You don’t believe he’s really that character at the outset (Bruce Willis was interested, and he would probably have pulled off that part better), even if he handles Jack being a complete dick with aplomb. Bridges is almost too good an actor for the role. He brings too much focus to a part that is borderline incoherent in terms of bridging Jack Lucas with bum Jack.

More problematic is that Parry never lands as remotely believable. Whoever he was in the flashback is completely undiscernible in the homeless Parry we see. And the homeless Parry we see is whoever Gilliam and LaGravenese – and Williams – want him to be from scene to scene. So mawkish and craving love (Williams’ standard serious acting schtick), or succumbing to hallucinations, or piercing “not mad” insights (“We just met, made love and broke up all in the space of thirty seconds”) or typical Williams routines (“What were the Crusades? The Pope’s publicity stunt”; inviting Anne to come up on the table and have sex with him). There’s about as much substance here as Mrs Doubtfire. Or Awakenings. That said, if Bridges is too real and Williams too maudlin, as a duo they do kind of click; there’s definitely odd-couple chemistry between them, but I’m never persuaded by their roles, or any kind of urgency in their quest.

Which may be partly because The Fisher King is so flabby and indulgent – there’s no earthly reason it needs to be two and a quarter hours. Gilliam may boast how he eschewed storyboards, but I instantly missed them, his knowing where he is going with a scene. In broad terms, the looser he becomes as a director, the less drilled down and engaging is his vision.

The positive of the running time is that we spend more time with the supporting characters than we otherwise would. Ruehl in particular is a knockout as Jack’s long-suffering other half. In fact, she exactly gets the tone that the leads seem to struggle with, managing to be affecting, poignant, very funny and “big”. She doesn’t put a foot wrong in her performance (although, I always wince at comedy slapping of men in movies, even though, obviously, all men inherently deserve to have physical violence inflicted upon them for what they have the potential to do).

Plummer is also great, in a daffy female Crispin Glover kind of way; the tension between Lydia and Anne is perfectly pitched, and I’d go as far to suggest that the sequence where Anne is doing Lydia’s nails is superior to any scene between Jack and Parry. But then, everyone on the edges of The Fisher King fares well; Michael Jeter is an amazing scene stealer as “Homeless Cabaret Singer” with a proficiently acid tongue; when Jack suggest he’s probably fine lying in the dirt of Central Park he replies “Oh sure, yes. I like bleeding in horse shit”. Later, a scene at the station with Jack finds the latter a far more complete person than he ever is with Parry.

And if the finale feels like its competing with The Return of the King for multiple endings, Gilliam undoubtedly scores a justly feted earlier sequence at the Chinese Restaurant, shot in one camera position aided by screen wipes and culminating in Parry singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady. It’s very charming in a way the picture often struggles with otherwise, no matter how insistently mood-instructive George Fenton’s score attempts to be (in contrast, the Grand Central Waltz is quite nice, but there’s nothing show-stopping about it in the manner usually suggested).

Gilliam said of the lack of Pythons here,“I finally grew up. I became a real boy” (which is what Jack does, hence the Pinocchio motif). If that’s the case, though, the maturity the pity. As with his two previous pictures, The Fisher King garnered multiple Oscar nods, most notably in the win for Ruehl (as Gilliam noted, it proved to be something of a career killer) and Williams’ third best actor nod, the peak of the Academy’s strange attachment to his uncomfortable quasi-comic hybrid turns.

Gilliam’s next two pictures (in his American trilogy) would also be affairs he was brought in on, embellishing as he saw fit. Fortunately, both would be far superior to The Fisher King. But this movie is the strongest indicator of where he would be as a post-millennium filmmaker. Not so much in content (it remains his only romantic comedy, if you want to call it that) but in the sense of a lack of structural discipline, a willingness to let the picture sprawl languorously rather than rely on the tight concepts and visuals that defined his early work.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas