Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is at the top of his game. A shock-jock radio host specialising as a kind of anti-Frasier Crane, he encourages listeners to call in with their problems before humiliating them with insults and the music of Ray Charles.
Living in a sterile Manhattan apartment and repulsively self-satisfied, it’s all going so well until one of his hapless callers takes his advice on going to war with yuppies literally and massacres seven people in a nightclub. Jump forward three years, and Jack is living above a video-rental store with his long suffering girlfriend, Anne, (Mercedes Ruehl), his radio career and self-worth both in tatters. Things take a turn for the weirder when Perry (Robin Williams) rescues Jack from some attackers after a bender. Living in a basement and claiming that he is a knight in search of the holy grail, Williams was arguably never better than under Terry Gilliam’s direction.
The former’s neurotic, twitchy vitality proves a perfect match for the latter’s idiosyncratic proclivities. Indeed, though he’s clearly insane – turning out to be the widowed husband of one of the victims of the killer Jack inspired – Perry’s redemptive quest is noble. Remorseful over his part in the tragedy, Jack tries to help Perry, learning that he is stalked by a malevolent red knight. Though the knight is easily dismissed as a delusion, reading the knight as a Blakeian vision resonates far more harmoniously with the director’s own sense of imaginative reality. If anything lets The Fisher King down, it’s the film’s female characters.
Both Ruehl and Amanda Plummer – as Perry’s object of affection, Lydia – turn in reliably strong performances, Ruehl’s natural brassiness offset by Plummer’s mousy klutz. But both are hamstrung by roles that cast them as mere foils for their male counterparts. God only knows why Anne would want to spend five minutes in Jack’s narcissistic company, and Perry’s stalking of Lydia comes off as creepy, not romantic. Gilliam is not a director who does things by halves, and The Fisher King is as funny and emotive as the best of his work. Indeed, it’s the heightened humanity of this film that resonates the strongest.
Messy, fluid vitality abounds in every frame of the film: foreheads sweat, noses bleed, breath smells. Even the sets, imbued with that heightened dystopian quality that runs through all of Gilliam’s work, seem alive. Coated in grime, wallpaper peeling and assembled out of junk, the space that Perry and Jack occupy lives and breathes, in a glorious cycle of decay and regeneration, Gilliam’s deranged characters and magical realism simply serving the motivation to depict life in all its insane, chaotic, unfair, beautiful majesty.