Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
There’s a lot going on in “The Fisher King.” Perhaps too much. The mythic elements in Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay threaten to tip the movie out of balance, to spoil subtext by shoving it in your face. But they provide fantasist director Terry Gilliam with an entry point to the material, and he’s able to make the picture work emotionally and aesthetically even if, narratively speaking, it’s an unwieldy contraption. Gilliam’s New York is unlike any other in movies. It’s a sort of fairyland situated somewhere between fantasy and the very worst of the everyday, a place where the magical is all mixed up with the cruel. Yet Gilliam is at heart a romantic, and he amplifies these contrasts until they have a dingbat capriciousness reminiscent of the best screwball comedies. In fact, the movie might work best as a rom-com.
It’s a sort of musical too. The city’s preeminent shock-jock, Jack Lucas, played by Jeff Bridges, is heralded by “Hit the Road Jack” and the impersonal buzz of C+C Music Factory, both suggestive of blithe attitudinizing — the worst of New York. Jack spends each morning fielding calls from the lonely and neurotic. He zeroes in on their soft spots, then skewers them with aplomb. He’s paid to channel cruelty: he invites his callers to come at him, spars with them, and he always wins. And it’s horrifying because it’s meant as entertainment. On the other hand, Robin Williams’ Parry, a head case who’s dropped out of society, is in tune with something more lilting. He’s as tender as Jack is hard, and George Fenton’s occasionally Gershwin-like score is keyed to that tenderness. Parry’s fundamental optimism — a naivety the movie takes seriously — is signaled by his affection for “How About You?,” a standard of Big Apple romanticizing that gradually evolves into the movie’s theme. Parry occasionally sings the song aloud. It’s a defense mechanism, a shield against reality. But it’s also a vocalized wish: he’s waiting for someone to sing with him.
The musical undertones of this dream Manhattan come bursting to the surface in two of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces. In one, a homeless cabaret singer played by the diminutive Michael Jeter storms through a powerhouse variation on “Some People” from “Gypsy.” The performance, given on behalf of Parry, is Parry’s way of communicating his rapture for the unwitting object of his affection, Lydia. That’s why it’s so big — it needs to match Parry’s feeling. But it’s also a consequence of Gilliam’s theatrical treatment of the mad and the homeless. It’s a treatment that might be understood as a kind of generosity: Like Preston Sturges, Gilliam and LaGravenese are never afraid to yield the stage to bit players, to let them (and their characters) show what they’ve got inside them. This gives the movie’s down-and-out grotesques a zonked quality that helps neutralize the trite notion, felt here and there in the picture, that the marginalized are more noble than the rest of us. (In a work of social realism, that notion might be deadly, but in musical-comedy terms it works, perhaps because we accept it as just another piece of stylization.)
The other big musical scene is the one everyone remembers: a large-scale transformation of Grand Central Station into a Viennese ballroom. Glimpsed through the lens of Parry’s ardor (he’s shadowing Lydia), New Yorkers rushing to work bloom into dance, their individualized motions reordering, magically, into the waltz’s revolving helix. Suddenly the famous space becomes all we’ve ever dreamed it to be: a venue not of business and self-involvement but of enchantment and romance. The transitions into and out of the fantasy are deft. It’s both exhilarating and a little sad when, the spell broken, the commuters resume their beelines as though nothing ever happened. It’s as lovely as nearly anything in Ophuls.
Parry is the movie’s gateway to that realm of enchantment, and he’s an avatar of a larger, messier humanity: he represents everything Jack can’t see through his cocoon of self-interest. When Jack attempts to assist Parry he begins to tune in to the tramp’s wavelength, yet the two men continue to operate on different registers. In a very funny scene set in a booth at a Chinese restaurant (it looks like a giant clam designed by Tiffany), Jack and his girlfriend Anne watch Parry and Lydia in disbelief as the latter pair nervously fiddle with chopsticks and communicate in a semi-verbal language peculiar to themselves. Gilliam keeps the couples on different planes, visualizing their apartness even as they sit together around a table. This strikes me as another derivation from romantic comedy: Like the Athenians and fairies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” these couples, each from different worlds, are brought together as if by sleight of hand, and their lives are pleasantly muddled as a result.
Romantic comedy has always been about this muddling, this absurd commingling of seemingly incompatible realities. That’s partly why “The Fisher King” works so well as a rom-com: incompatible realities are its core. Smartly, Gilliam, art director P. Michael Johnson, and cinematographer Roger Pratt capitalize on every potential contrast. The wide-angle vertigo of Jack’s metallic world plays off the steampunk chaos of Parry’s hovel, and both bump up against the cherry-hued warmth of Anne’s ramshackle video store. These contrasts gradually pile up, expanding our understanding of the drama in ways that dialog cannot, and they yield payoffs that are unaccountably zany.
The acting is similarly cumulative. Each of the principals delves into caricature. The performances are amusing on their own, but when they come together the exaggerations mix into a jazzy bop. Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer, as, respectively, Anne and Lydia, are playing archetypal females: they’re more stable than Jack and Parry, and they want to tie these men down, to pull them away from the edges, closer to the center of society. Nearly as tall as Bridges (she’s often photographed to look taller), and emotionally much larger, Ruehl is benevolently commandeering. She’s an earth-mama Valkyrie in floral prints — a bit like Cher in “Moonstruck,” but softer, without angles. She has a great scene with Plummer in Anne’s apartment. It’s an epic of girl talk. Plummer’s pixelated volatility gradually overwhelms the conversation, until the two women are crawling on the floor, their inhibitions vaporized. (It’s a funny encapsulation of the scarily fast way in which women can bond.) As always, Plummer is a wonder to watch. Each of her reactions and line readings seems plucked from an alternate universe. The way in which she’s shot brings out the beauty in her ungainliness. Her face looks as if it’s surrounded by taffeta.
Bridges has the thankless job of playing the straight man, and he’s tasked with putting over the screenplay’s most awkward transitions. He carries it with minimum fuss, flitting you over the rough spots (he’s a seducer). Still, some aspects of the Jack character are hard to surmount. It’s unfortunate that Gilliam makes Jack walk around with a Pinocchio doll, a symbol of his need to become human. It’s a stupid idea. And it’s regrettable that the character is saddled with so much guilt. Jack, we understand, feels responsible for Parry’s condition: it was an on-air comment of Jack’s that led to the murder of Parry’s wife and his resulting madness. That’s fine as a story initiator, but by the final third of the picture Jack’s connection to Parry is still rooted in a desire to clear his conscience. There’s something gross about this. By that point their relationship should be based on affection, not on a desire to come clean. It leaves a sour taste, and it betrays the movie’s theme of selflessness. Guilt, after all, is a selfish emotion.
Nevertheless, a large part of the movie’s tone depends on Bridges: his slick, tumescent DJ may have a greater purchase on the film than Williams’ gargoyle, because Bridges gives Jack a begrudging gallantry that brings you into his narcissism, which is the basis of the movie’s conflict. We can see ourselves in Jack. Williams’ Parry, by contrast, is too otherworldy to identify with. Parry may represent the signature Robin Williams characterization: freakily sensitized, barely in control of his impulses, Parry is so open that you want to distance yourself to avoid being sucked in. Williams’ directors often used these qualities for effects that were purely comic. And for good reason: Williams could be hilarious. Yet I think his vulnerability and almost off-putting over-susceptibility are what made him memorable as an actor. Gilliam has the sense not to divest these qualities of their darkness — he avoids making them cuddly. To the extent that Parry is touching, he’s pathetically and tragically so, and at the movie’s end you’re still not confident he’ll maintain a toehold in this world.
“The Fisher King” is fraught like that; it finds its life in instability. Anne and Jack forge a truce, but it’s a wary one, and we sense it might be broken at any moment. But for a while at least each has glimpsed something in the other, and surrendered a little. When the movie is at its best it’s about this process of overcoming self-involvement. It’s asking us to look outside of ourselves, to reckon with the beguiling overflowingness of life, and to see the waltzes inside our commutes.
- Criterion recently released a lovely Blu-ray of the movie. Available here.