Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 08 December 2006
Source 35mm print
His career as a disc jockey in self-imposed exile, Jack Lucas sips on another in a chain of whiskeys and watches “On the Radio,” a sitcom for which he was offered the lead role three years prior. It is an obnoxious comedy, one his girlfriend, Anne, enjoys. “It’s funny,” she defends. “What do you want?”
It’s not funny.
Then why do we watch it?
It makes me feel good to see how not funny it is. America doesn’t know funny; it makes it easier not being on TV. That would just mean I’m not really talented.
Jack’s sin is apparently self-righteousness, but it’s indistinguishable from his self-loathing. There is an impression he hates himself for losing the opportunity — not the job itself — to star in “On the Radio.” He is left to dismiss it, without concurrence in his girlfriend. He downs his whiskey and proceeds out into a rain-soaked night.
This is the worst things get for Jack. Prior, he was a celebrity, valeted about New York City in a limousine, with a gigantic apartment and girlfriend some two decades his junior. He has lost the fame, the recognition, and the girlfriend, but retained the pride. His professional dissolution was triggered once his advice, in his morning radio talk show, prompted one of his listeners to enter a restaurant and kill several of its patrons with a shotgun before aiming the barrel toward himself. Three years later, cement bricks affixed to his ankles, Jack takes another swig of alcohol and steps heavy toward the East River.
Terry Gilliam’s early films share a dismissal of corporations and corporate procedure: the time-traveling dwarves in Time Bandits and their refusal to pay their debt to the Supreme Being; Brazil, virtually in its entirety; and Baron Munchausen’s preference for fantasy in the middle of a war. None of the motifs these three films share — inventive visuals, and despair told in cartoonish camera blocking — are at first evident in The Fisher King. Its first act is brutal in demonstrating Jack’s guilt, and this brutality is noticeably uncharacteristic of Gilliam.
The Fisher King is an anomaly in Gilliam’s career; as such, it is inadequate in auteurist appraisal, especially in comparison to Baron Munchausen, which was notorious prior to its release for cost overruns and Gilliam’s volatile relationship with Columbia Pictures. The result is a majestically overwrought film, as justifiably derided for its excesses as it is for its fleeting moments of brilliance—a masterpiece that demonstrates both its maker’s imagination and vulnerability. Gilliam’s films at this point are an aggregation so exponentially excessive that there is little allowance for his imagination to further burgeon. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was released in 1988, millions of dollars over budget, to a less than satisfactory box office return. The Fisher King would follow it three years later, with a reduced production budget and relatively few of the director’s visual hallmarks.
But The Fisher King remains a distinctly Terry Gilliam film. The few characteristics it retains from his previous — and quintessential — pictures are rarefied in the character Parry. He is an energetic homeless man who saves Jack moments after he is doused in gasoline by some thugs (this, just before his intended suicide). Parry is an unreliable but successful savior, outfitted in a Russian fur hat and garbage can weaponry. Before he and his equally unreliable army (most of whom seem to be elderly; one soldier holds a shield in tandem with his walker) dissuade the thugs, the party engages in an impromptu rendition of “How About You.” Drunk, bruised, and without shelter in a rainstorm, Jack resembles his homeless saviors accurately. But his rescue sobers him a bit, and early in the morning he realizes he is not of their party. Parry has taken him in at his basement dwelling, and prior to Jack’s exit he pronounces his quest to find the Holy Grail—his intentions are true; he presages the announcement by kneeling and raising a sword. He eclipses an ethereal light, and — before his shrine of Holy Grail ephemera — he looks like a saint and not a schizophrenic.
Cleansed and rested, Jack returns to Parry’s dwelling to reimburse him for his hospitality. Parry is not present, and the building’s owner describes to Jack the nature of Parry’s frantic condition: three years prior, Parry — a successful professor — witnessed the death of his wife and seven others at a dinner interrupted by a desperate maniac and a shotgun. Jack’s tremendous guilt is thrown in sharper relief; he realizes he must aid Parry in his improbable quest in order to redeem himself.
Its characters are variably ugly, conceited, or disheveled, and each undergoes a metamorphic change into someone more beautiful or humble (or clean). But for a film concerned chiefly with the possibility of redemption, these changes are depicted with nuance and modesty. There is a key sequence in which Jack — having arranged a double date with him and Anne, and Parry and his object of intense attention, Lydia — bathes and dresses Parry in an inverted pinstripe suit. Parry shivers with excited tension atop a stool, as Jack staples his cuffs and trousers in makeshift hems. This is a beautiful action that both demonstrates Parry’s emotional baptism and retains his idiosyncratic flaws. In other words, this transformation (as well as every other in the film) is impermanent, yet it is not superficial. At the end of the evening, Parry walks Lydia home and admits his love. Shaken by his frankness and warmth, she rests her forehead on his. “You’re real,” she says. Her words describe the vulnerability and hope of most every character in the film.
Despite their transformations and intentions toward the better, each of these characters remains flawed. Again: this film is not concerned with redemption in as much as the possibility of such. Parry’s successful evening with Lydia — culminating sharply with a goodnight kiss — triggers the debilitating vision of the Red Knight, a horrid manifestation of the memory of his wife’s death. It is an adversary only he sees, and his lapses that incite the premonition are occasional but never as lucid as on this evening in particular. He is chased to the bank of the East River, and beaten by the same thugs he had courageously disabled earlier. Parry succumbs to his adversary instead of running from it, his newfound love having tendered little transformative psychology.
The next morning Jack, having returned home in a much more optimistic demeanor, phones his agent for the first time, it is implied, in several months. But this newfound optimism restores his previous, more conceited mind state: after announcing his interest in returning to radio to Anne, he calmly suggests they break up. For the past three years — the tenure of his depression — she has been his support, and for him to renounce her so immediately, however calmly and honestly, is to rescind any of the values she has engendered in him. The dismissal extends to Parry. In his mind, Jack has rehabilitated his friend with concentrated orchestration (the previous evening, he loaned Parry his wallet so he could pay for dinner). Following his ill-received suggestion to Anne, the phone rings with news of Parry’s capture at a hospital, and his submission into another, possibly permanent coma.
Jack Lucas is until this instant the most skeptical and rational of Gilliam’s leading characters, which is to say he remains imprisoned. His is a prison of convenience and solitude, and reclaiming his old job encourages his breakup with Anne, as well as other distinct social segregations. As he enters a skyscraper to meet with a television producer, his agent eagerly in tow, he is recognized by one of Parry’s friends. Jack raises his sunglasses (the prop returns at this moment of the film; they are lenses that further cripple his perception) and squints at the man, and shortly proceeds indoors. The experience affects him, though, and he suddenly exits his meeting. To ensure Parry’s salvation he must fulfill his quest for the Holy Grail.
For Jack to do so he must absolve his pride and narrow notions of fulfillment. He dons what is perceptibly some of Parry’s tattered clothing, arms himself with a fragile shield and slingshot, and embarks to face the demons that lie between he and his prize. He does this in spite of his knowledge of the grail’s actuality. It is some sort of trophy, an ephemeral, worthless prop collecting dust in an aging millionaire’s urban castle. There are no demons, only a sophisticated security alarm and the threat of humiliation his capture would inspire. To fulfill his quest, he must imagine his own challenges and his own rewards.
The Fisher King’s closing moments follow, and they are the most formulaically saccharine in Gilliam’s entire career, but being as the characters are so carefully established as flawed, it does not feel permanent. Parry may continue to envision the horrific Red Knight, and Jack may continue to doubt himself and his relationship with Anne. But here, the two share a moment of quiet comfort in the aftermath of intense, transitional hardships. They lie on an expanse of grass in Central Park, staring up at the night sky. A happy ending perhaps, but nonetheless earned.