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.



Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the