The Fisher King (1991)
December 23, 2014 12:22 AM - Subscribe

A former radio DJ, suicidally despondent because of a terrible mistake he made, finds redemption in helping a deranged homeless man who was an unwitting victim of that mistake.

DID EBERT LIKE IT? Not particularly. Two stars. "A a disorganized, rambling and eccentric movie that contains some moments of truth, some moments of humor, and many moments of digression."'

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in the Chicago Reader in 1991:
The Quixote theme is a beautiful and complex one, and there are brief moments — particularly after Jack seems to fall into the role of Sancho Panza, protecting Parry from danger while humoring his delusions — when the movie seems to have stumbled upon a rich vein of poetic tragicomedy. Some of the movie’s most charming moments seem to stem from Parry’s quixotic illusions, such as the conversion of Grand Central Station at rush hour into a ballroom of waltzing commuters. Unfortunately, the filmmakers lose the Quixote theme by thoroughly muddling the film’s notions of illusion and reality — by the end, it’s made to seem that most of Parry’s delusions may be half-true, hence not delusions.
The Fisher King was much discussed in the wake of Robin Willams' death. Keith Phipps, writing in The Dissolve:
It’s often unwise and irrelevant to connect actors to the roles they play, and yet something about Williams’ suicide has invited it. He often played men struggling with darkness, sometimes without success, frequently men who used verbal agility and unbridled energy as weapons in the fight. Few movies put that struggle to the fore as prominently as The Fisher King.
Niles Schwartz, revisiting the movie for, had a longer and kinder take on it than Ebert's original review:
Parry’s hurt is an insoluble wound, the unrestrained imagination of Gilliam boldly projecting his psychological firestorm and making manifest his loss. It’s not only Williams’ darkest performance, but also Gilliam’s most affecting and deepest turn as a filmmaker. Director and actor weave together perfect discord in madness, audaciously shifting from a moment of soul enlivening sweetness to one of crushing psychological mutilation.
In a Vulture interview, Terry Gilliam recalls shooting the movie:
It was very hard from an acting point of view, because Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.’
THE GOOD: the Grand Central Station scene, rush-hour commuters spontaneously breaking into a waltz before just as effortlessly slipping back to normal. Sanjay Roy: "The extraordinary becomes ordinary again, and all within a single continuous scene." Terry Gillam discusses the scene in a 1991 South Bank Show interview. From an 2002 IFC Focus interview, excerpted on the apparently-defunct fansite: [site prompts to install Java, ignore it]
We did a few takes, we ran around, threw Robin in...Amanda in...Amanda walks through, Robin was just madness for a couple hours, and we got it. We didn't quite get it, because the trains did arrive, and people were coming out of the trains. And the PR lady from Grand Central says "you've gotta be outta here, you'd promised you would be outta here"...and literally I was just throwing Robin into the middle of these commuters walking through, and there weren't enough so I'd get members of the crew. "Keep walking back and forth! Robin look left, look right, look up, look down, look lost, do anything!" And that's how we did it, and we got out of there...Barbara Streisand came in a few months later, and shot one one shot of her walking through and it took a week.
THE GOOD, II: bonus Tom Waits cameo. What Tom Waits's Movies Taught Me About Style.

THE BAD: So, so, SO eighties. The suits! The haircuts! Jeff Bridges channeling Howard Stern! The movie attempts to be timeless but is hopelessly rooted in its era.

ON LOCATION: The exteriors were filmed on location in New York. The LA Times followed Gilliam on location.

TRIVIA: Film School Rejects' 44 Things We Learned from The Fisher King Commentary.

Terry Gilliam on Robin Williams: "a giant heart, a fireball friend, a wondrous gift from the gods. Now the selfish bastards have taken him back. Fuck 'em!"
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It is just too bad that Terry Gilliam was never inspired to create a prequel "Mork: the true story". Would have been epic, insane, wacky, mind bending but not sad and disturbing.
posted by sammyo at 6:06 AM on December 23, 2014

I couldn't fit Michael Jeter's performance into the flow of the post, so here are some bonus links:
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:31 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Great writeup for a fantastic film. I have a promotional button sitting around here somewhere, and I'll never, ever give it up.

I don't think the dated 80s look is 'the bad', really. (Though I don't ever, ever want to relive the 80s.) That video store! Yes! They were like that!

Glad you mention that Tom Waits cameo, because it is a rare and timeless thing, like the rest of the film.
posted by Catblack at 8:55 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

This may be the film that achieved maximum Jeter.
posted by maxsparber at 10:42 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

This movie was basically a dud until Robin Williams showed up and in fact I wish he showed up earlier.

He is ELECTRIC in his performance here, which is more than a little reminiscent of Harvey when he's talking to the little people. Of course, the idea of 'little people' is a pretty strong reference to the Mark David Chapman, which would've still been fresh on people's minds even removed from the death of John Lennon by a few years.

This was a strange little movie: one part rom-com, one part Bret Easton Ellis, one part Harvey, a big ol' dollp of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, part jabberwocky, and part Monty Python. You've got the magpie Gilliam mining his Monty Python past with a sly wink (The Grail, knights, etc.), I half expected Jeff Bridges to say to Williams' character when they come upon that castle: "It's only a model!"

All in all, it was rather within Terry Gilliam's... oh, what's the word I'm looking for... ("Idiom, sir?" "YES! That's it.")
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 11:45 AM on December 23, 2014

(It did need to be edited down a bit, though.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 11:46 AM on December 23, 2014

A little tiny touch of It's A Wonderful Life at the beginning, too: man driven to attempt suicide by bad luck and circumstance is saved by a quirky character who talks to the sky.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:11 PM on December 23, 2014

I tried watching this on Netflix. It was compromised by time compression—jerky, out of aspect and with pitched-up sound.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:46 PM on December 23, 2014

Not to nitpick, but this "so, so, SO eighties" movie came out in 1991.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:13 AM on December 24, 2014

The 80's didn't actually end until September 10, 1991. This film came out ten days later so is firmly in the 80's throughout it's production.
posted by Jawn at 1:48 PM on December 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Two weeks before it came out, my mother found out that she had a second round of cancer, and it was terminal. The week that it came out, I told my senior year (high school) advisor that sometime this year, my mother was going to die and I'd probably need a few days off. They gave her a year, she lasted until Christmas.

I was a month away from turning 18 when my mother died. I had just started dating my first-ever. Of course, I had no idea of what it was like to commit to someone for the rest of your life. To love someone so deeply that you couldn't imagine not waking up next to that person. But I definitely knew what it was like to have one of, if not the, most important person in your life taken away from you, on short to no notice. I knew from unfair.

I didn't see the movie until it came out on video. You might say that it resonated.

Watching it over the years, I can get some distance. I can see that it is so, so eighties. And so, so Gilliam, for good and ill. But there's Mercedes Ruehl, trying to make it work with the shitty hand she's dealt. Michael Jeter, reminding you of tragedy without limit or end. Even Amanda Plummer, who's aware she's off, but isn't really capable of doing anything about her awareness. The supporting actors are heavy hitters, each and every one.

And then there's Parry, asking if it's ok to miss her. If it's ok to integrate the greatest tragedy and pain ever (for him) into his life and then to go on living. If it's somehow permissible to go on without air, without gravity, without the thing he thought he could count on. Can you do that and not betray her? Isn't the very thought a betrayal? And shouldn't you be punished for thinking so? So many actors could miss that mark. It's easy to over- and under-shoot. Robin Williams hits it dead on.

Obviously, I'm no good about being critical of this film. joseph conrad is fully awesome is probably right about it starting really slow. As a film in and of itself, I'd defer to Ebert's judgement, though I wonder what he'd say about it on another watching. But I love this film and sometimes, in moments of whimsical madness, think that it might have been made just for me, just at that moment.
posted by aureliobuendia at 2:25 PM on December 24, 2014 [11 favorites]

I watched this for the first time shortly after Robin Williams sad death. It's a film that has a lot to say about depression and mental illness, and this confluence of events made it seem much more poignant to me than it might have otherwise.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:42 AM on December 30, 2014

I love this movie. About the time it came out I was taking a Jungian Psychology class in hs and learning about the Grail King. My father's favorite musical was Man of La Mancha so it was fascinating to see those stories fit into a modern context. I'm a big Gilliam fan so there is also that.

But what really got me was Williams saying this line "Is it ok to miss her now?" Even typing it, I teared up. As someone who dealt with a lot of tragedy at a young age and survived, I completely understood that line and how perfectly he delivered it.
posted by miss-lapin at 11:12 AM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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