Review: The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King


Terry Gilliam
Richard LaGravanese
137 min.
Jeff Bridges, David Pierce, Lara Harris, Mercedes Ruehl, Harry Shearer, Robin Williams, Amanda Plummer, Christian Clemenson
MPAA Rating
R for language and violence

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From the strange and twisted mind of Terry Gilliam comes a frequently-frustrating film about mental illness, the power of compassion and a knight’s quest to retrieve the holy grail.

The film stars Jeff Bridges as a jaded, egocentric shock jock poking fun at the misery of his callers and preparing for a leap to television. All his plans are derailed when a hapless caller is whipped into frustration by the jockey for ratings gold, but which unhinges the poor, deluded caller. He later goes on a shooting spree in a night club, killing several and sending the jock into an emotional tailspin that drives him away from radio and towards life as a recluse at his girlfriend’s apartment and video store.

Bridges’ emotional state has also driven him to drink and while wandering the streets one evening in the hopes of forgetting, he’s accosted by a trio of hoodlums who douse him with gasoline in an attempt to set him on fire. A strange homeless man played by Robin Williams arrives in the nick of time to save him. Afterwards, he learnsthat the bum has fallen into his depression and gone crazy after his wife was slain by the man who the jockey had driven mad months earlier. Bridges goes out of his way to try and placate his conscience by yielding assistance to this crazy man, indulging him in his bizarre claims of being spoken to by God and sent on a spiritual quest to retrieve the Holy Grail.

Bridges does a superb job as the guilt-ridden shock jock, but the film belongs to Williams whose zany, madcap antics drive the film’s central focus home and keep the movie from being completely frustrating and seemingly pointless. The concept is certainly original, which is what Gilliam is unerringly noted for, but sometimes his concepts are a bit too twisted to be completely enjoyable. The Fisher King is like that. Trying to sift through the strangeness to find the kernel of truth Gilliam wants to present is a simple, yet tiring task. Keep up with all of the weird characters and situations often distracts from the greater picture, a story about the power of guilt and the ability for the soul to cleanse when we let ourselves go free.

The film often reminds me of one of my favorite events of the 1991 Oscar season. At the early-morning nominations announcement presentation in 1992, then-President of the Academy Karl Malden presented the year’s nomination alongside Oscar nominee Kathleen Turner. As they moved through the list, Malden kept reading off categories featuring nominations for The King Fisher. Turner kept nodding until she finally tried whispering him that it was indeed The Fisher King. He never seemed to take notice, but now that I’ve seen the film, it’s almost fitting that he bungled the title.
Review Written
September 6, 2010

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