Most of the movies proposed by my readers were terrible films or riff-able films, so imagine my surprise when one of my readers decided to select one of my favorite movies of all time for the list: The Fisher King.
If you haven’t seen the movie, rent it on Amazon. It’s $3. Do it right now. I’ll wait.
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Alright, first I watched this movie and didn’t think I needed to take notes because it’s not a shitty movie I’m trying to mock, and I’ve seen it at least twice. However, after trying to write the review, I realized that the movie is so deep and beautiful that I needed to have notes just to make sure I remembered all the things that I wanted to put in the review. I’m new at this, give me a break. So, I watched Brazil. Then, I watched this again right afterwards. Cards on the table, Brazil is a more interesting film, but this one has some parts that are right up there.
So, in terms of plot, the movie is pretty straightforward (unlike Brazil). Jack (Jeff Bridges) is a successful radio shock jock and professional *sshole who makes some off-the-cuff statements to a caller about yuppies. The caller then goes on a murder-suicide shooting spree at a yuppie bar, which, naturally, wrecks Jack’s career. Three years later, he’s working at a video store for his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), and hating his life. After seeing an episode of the TV show he was supposed to be on, he goes on a bender and tries to kill himself. Before he can, a pair of yuppies mistake him for a bum and try to set him on fire. Jack’s rescued by a group of bums led by Parry (Robin Williams). Parry speaks in a blend of faux-Elizabethan mixed with regular Brooklynite, and often throws in allusions to Arthurian myth and famous works of literature. He believes himself to be on a quest for the “Holy Grail,” which is a trophy in a rich architect’s castle-like mansion.
Parry is insane and constantly harassed by a vision of a Red Knight, who comes whenever he thinks about his wife or past life. Unfortunately, it turns out that his madness is a result of watching his wife brutally murdered in the same shooting spree that Jack inadvertently caused. Before this, Parry was a professor of literature at Hunter College, explaining why he knows so many references. Jack feels guilty, believing that he caused Parry’s plight, and starts trying to help Parry. Jack follows Parry through his day, seeing how Parry lives within a blend of fantasy and reality. At one point, Parry lies naked on the ground, staring at clouds, and tells Jack a version of the myth of the Fisher King (covered later).
Parry is obsessed with a girl named Lydia (Amanda Plummer), who he believes to be his romantic ideal. Jack and Anne help set Parry and Lydia up, and go on a successful double-date. However, when Parry walks Lydia home and successfully woos her, he again sees the image of the Red Knight, who he begs just to let him be done grieving and be allowed to move on. However, the Red Knight chases him back to the same place he met Jack, and there, Parry is stabbed and beaten by the same men who tried to light Jack on fire. Parry thanks them, and then falls into a catatonic state.
Meanwhile, Jack dumps Anne, gets his show back, and generally just becomes a professional *sshole again, even after helping put Parry in an asylum while he’s catatonic. However, after hearing a pitch about a TV show involving homeless people, Jack’s conscience finally returns, and he decides to help Parry by stealing the “Grail” in the hopes that it will rouse Parry out of his slumber. He breaks into the castle, steals the cup, and sets off the alarm as he’s leaving, which inadvertently prevents the architect from committing suicide. After getting the Grail, Parry awakens, he and Lydia become a couple, Parry is (mostly) healed from his affliction, Jack and Anne get back together, and presumably everyone lives happily ever after.
First, I have to address the acting in the movie, because, it’s amazing. Bridges manages to play both the egotistical misanthrope, the broken man who lost it all, and the redeemed believer all in one film. Ruehl manages to deliver some great monologues on love, life, and the world, including when she’s having dinner alone after Jack bails on her, telling Jack off when he dumps her, and telling Jack off when he comes back. She got an Oscar for this. But it’s Williams and Plummer that really steal the show. Williams manages to convey a man who is covering for his own sadness and pain with constant energy and positivity, which, given his real life, is all the more tragic and impressive. It really showcases both his comedic and dramatic talents, often juxtaposing them within the same scene, and he manages to sell it all. Plummer, though she has less screen time, manages to mirror Williams, portraying someone who is broken, but trying to put on a brave and happy face to cover for it. It’s four amazing performances that really work well together.
Next, the direction and writing. So, if you’ve ever seen a Terry Gilliam film, you probably know what you’re in for with this. Visually, this movie is a spectacle, the dialogue is fabulous, and there are always elements that make it seem just a few steps outside of reality. The camera angles in the movie usually have a Dutch tilt, either to reflect Parry’s madness or Jack’s drunkenness, and periodically a fisheye shot when one of the characters is dealing with a “normal” person, to make it more obvious that even “normal” behavior can seem inane from the right perspective. And that ties into one of the smaller themes in the movie: That everyone is crazy in their own way.
In the film, the homeless people discuss things that you’d normally hear about, like the Death Penalty and the Stock Market, they just have odd takes on them. One of the homeless men (Michael Jeter) is a cabaret dancer who just never had his chance… and is probably the wrong gender, although, the scene in which he goes all dancing and singing out is amazing. However, even though they’re depicted as poor, sick, etc., they’re depicted as at least having a level of magic, imagination, and freedom which escapes the more normal people. For example, in the beginning of the film, and when he returns to it later, Jack’s radio booth is lit to look like a prison. Later, when Parry puts a suit on for his date with Lydia, it’s directly compared to his straightjacket restraining him. This could be either a reference to being imprisoned by trying to be “normal,” imprisoned by pride, or both, or neither. This is a Gilliam film, so it’s anyone’s guess.
Another great scene in this theme is when Tom Waits (applause) says that the image of being homeless is the only thing that keeps some people from breaking free of the prison of everyday routine. He delivers one of the greatest quips in the movie, too, when Jack points out that a man putting money in his begging cup didn’t even look at him: “He’s paying so he doesn’t have to look.”
The best scene in the movie, and one of the best scenes in film, period, is the first time that Parry tries to talk to Lydia at Grand Central Station. As he is trying to reach her through the commuter crowd in the station, it slowly transforms from a crowd of people commuting in sync to a crowd of people waltzing around the information booth. It’s a beautiful scene, and it combines the magical romanticism of falling in love with the constant, coordinated, but completely emotionally unconnected movement of the commuters on the subway. It’s taking something mundane, and transforming it into a work of art, because it reflects the love that Parry has for Lydia. If you can’t watch the movie, at least watch this scene.
Another notable element is the use of red throughout the film. The Red Knight (a reference to Arthurian Myth) represents Parry’s past and the trauma he’s dealing with, and the construction of the knight demonstrates that. The knight looks like he’s covered in blood and entrails, which we later see is what Parry looks like when his wife’s body was sprayed all over him after she was shot. The knight also breathes fire in bursts, which resembles Parry’s memory of the shooter. Throughout the movie, blue is shown to be surrounding red in background images, from the clock in Anne’s video store to the Chinese restaurant where the double date occurs, representing Parry constructing an illusion around his pain (specifically, because he compares his insanity to the imagination of images in the blue sky).
Okay, so, I’d be remiss if I didn’t actually address the title. “The Fisher King,” in this movie, is the story of a King who was tasked by God to guard the Holy Grail, but was wounded for his pride when he tried to reach into the flames surrounding the Grail to grab it. The King’s wound kept growing worse, and he tried to have others bring the Grail to him so that it would heal him, but they failed. The King lost all faith in anything. One day a Fool came to the castle, and saw the King in pain and alone. The King asked the Fool for some water, and the Fool brings him a cup. When the King drinks, he’s healed, and finds that the cup was the Grail. He asks the Fool how he could find the Grail, and the Fool says “I don’t know, I only knew you were thirsty.”
So, Parry’s name comes from Parsifal, the Wagner Opera translation of Perceval, which translates to “Pure Fool.” That’s not what the original knight’s name meant (Valley piercer), but it works well within the movie. Parry starts the movie off as the Fool healing Jack, the broken King. When they meet, Parry immediately perceives that Jack is trying to kill himself, and that he’s in a miserable, broken state, and he saves him, first literally, then metaphorically. However, fixing him just makes Jack a victim of his own pride again, at which point he becomes a jerk again, and just buries his own issues under his illusion of success bringing happiness. Then, when Parry is injured, Jack instead must become the knight, retrieving the Grail to heal him, which is more akin to the traditional Arthurian tale of the Fisher King. In short, the roles flip, and they have now healed each other at the end. It’s an interesting take on the story, since the Pure Fool, Parry, ultimately cannot get the Grail, but the redeemed King Jack does. Also, yes, the name Jack is probably a reference to being a wounded King, as is Parry’s real name of Henry.
There’s a lot to unpack in this movie, but there’s only one more thing I’ll address here. In at least one scene, Parry is quoting Don Quixote, while waiting for Lydia, who clearly plays the role of “Dulcinea” in his life, as a woman who he loves romantically, despite her having no idea who he is. It’s a solid reference, but here’s my question: Since Parry is quoting a book about a crazy man obsessed with a false romantic ideal who is in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists, is he also on some level aware that he is a crazy man obsessed with a false romantic ideal who is in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists? It’s like when Khan quotes Moby Dick in Star Trek II, meaning he should recognize that his obsession with vengeance is going to damn him, but can’t stop himself. Parry can’t stop himself from being Quixote, but the fact that he knows he’s Quixote actually makes it all the more tragic. I’m interpreting it that way rather than that his madness prevents him from realizing what he’s doing.
Overall, this was an amazing movie that really holds up on re-watching.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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Preliminary: Pumped for this. Just watched Brazil to set the mood and to get primed to see “Gilliam” scenes.
0:00 – “Hit the Road Jack” is the opening song. Nice. Jack’s room is clearly supposed to look like a prison.
0:03 – Dealing with Edwin is horrifying. Edwin is falling in love with a girl, but Jack twists that into hatred.
0:04 – The one black car in the cab-sea. And I love DHP as the agent.
0:05 – Jack’s apartment is so 80s, it has copies of American Psycho in the walls.
0:06 – Jack practicing saying “forgive me” while painting his face is amazing.
0:07 – “I’ve got the power” is a little too on point.
0:08 – Bridges nails the reaction. He knows his life is over.
0:09 – Transition shot shows the high-rise and ends on the slum. Also, “BRAZIL” Poster.
0:10 – Fisheye lens of being confronted by a woman saying absolute drivel is classic Gilliam, and it really conveys how ridiculous the banality of some people is. Bridges throwing porn at her is also Gilliam, but in a very different way. And I’m pretty sure she checks it out in the background.
0:11 – “Because it makes me feel better because of how not funny it is.” Man, that’s fucking great.
0:13 – Dutch tilt while drunk, pretty standard, but still good. Cab driver using the catchphrase from the show Jack lost out on, that’s awesome. “Forgive me” sarcastically is a great New York expression.
0:14 – The kid with the Pinocchio doll has balls. Approaches a homeless guy with a toy.
0:15 – Confessing to Pinocchio. What a neat idea.
0:16 – I’d ask where he got the weights on his feet, but apparently you can find anything under a bridge.
0:17 – If there are random gangs of people setting bums on fire in New York, I feel like that’s a bit of a concern. Sadly, nobody brings this up again, which means that even though there was a huge deal made about the uptown shooting at the beginning, dead homeless people don’t matter.
0:18 – 30 seconds in, and Robin Williams is amazing, he perfectly blends Arthurian Prose and modern speech. The bums coming out with a cross and lights is amazing.
0:19 – Robin Williams immediately identifies Bridges as suicidal. Jesus.
0:20 – Every major movement is capped off with a sound effect.
0:22 – Williams’s energy is so amazing, and the fact that the camera is never at a straight angle with he’s on screen makes him seem all the more unnatural and off-kilter.
0:25 – He’s got one eye closed because only one lens in his glasses. My god, Williams was great at this.
0:27 – “Really? You look married.” My god, that’s dark. Williams really has mastered that look of madness and sadness under a mask of joy. Which, I guess is what he was in life.
0:29 – “Kramer vs. Kramer, won an award. Go.” That’s some customer service.
0:34 – My god, the apartment is amazingly constructed. It tells you more about Parry the longer you look at it. The little shrines, the books, etc., all tell you about the character and the life he lost. Amazing.
0:35 – The Red bathrobe over just one shoulder like a toga reminds me of a painting of a man atoning, but I can’t find what it is, so I guess it just fits thematically in my imagination.
0:37 – Parry quoting Don Quixote while sitting atop a car watching a clock is interesting. Parry clearly is Don Quixote, in a way, because he’s a crazy guy obsessed with the ideal of knighthood and he’s on a quest. But, if he knows he’s Don Quixote, does that mean on some level he knows he’s nuts? Or is he saying that Don Quixote might have had a point? It’s like when Khan quotes Ahab in Star Trek II: Is he unaware of the irony, or is he saying that it doesn’t matter, because it’s what he feels driven to do? Parry is in love, and, like Quixote, it’s basically more with a romantic ideal than with any part of reality, but does him referencing it mean that he knows he’s doing it? F*ck you Gilliam, I love you so much right now.
0:38 – I would probably spy on Amanda Plummer too. I get it. Williams somehow makes everything about Parry so sad and yet joyful.
0:39 – Garbage is such an interesting presence in this movie, drawing a comparison of New York and the Middle Ages, and the homeless all appear to be insane, but acting in ways that mirror many of the “normal” people.
0:41 – Parry’s random interjections to invisible people are f*cking jarring.
0:42 – I love Williams’ costume.
0:43 – Nobody seems to care that there’s a crazy homeless guy having an attack in the street. New Yorkers, I guess? Okay, first sight of the Red Knight, and he still looks a bit Jim Henson-ish, but frightening enough. He’s supposed to represent the death of Parry’s wife, which is why he looks blood-spattered, has smoke coming out of him, and periodically has bursts of flame. It works.
0:49 – The Asylum looks like a round table. Well-played, sir.
0:50 – TOM WAITS CAMEO!!! Love it. “He’s payin’ so he doesn’t have to look.” God, I love this man.
0:53 – Is a group of Nuns a Gaggle? Also, this waltz scene is amazing. My god, there’s hundreds of people dressed as commuters waltzing almost perfectly around a disco ball over the information booth. This is one of the best scenes I’ve ever watched, and this is the 2nd time I’ve watched it just for this review.
0:54 – And then it just ends with the train. The illusion broken.
0:55 – Mercedes Ruehl won an Oscar for this movie, but my gosh, this solo dinner was really a great scene.
0:56 – Light it however you want, that’s still Robin Williams’ dick.
0:57 – The captions are censored. Interesting. Also, again, Williams manages to convey so much energy, madness, and sadness all at once.
0:58 – Robin Williams telling the story of the Fisher King is hypnotic.
1:00 – The fool just saw the king needed a drink.
1:02 – Arthur and Guinevere exchange is brilliant. But, man, does it drive home that scene with the girlfriend.
1:04 – Michael Jeter as the homeless Cabaret singer with a mustache should be my screensaver. Also, he’s dead. That’s sad.
1:08 – Okay, if I was Lydia this would be my nightmare, I’ll go ahead and acknowledge that. I probably would have attempted to burrow through the floor from awkwardness.
1:09 – I don’t get why they couldn’t have gotten Parry a shower, but I probably just missed it.
1:11 – That’s on whoever stacked those videos. Also, I love the neon clock.
1:14 – “You have a wonderful set of… Dishes.” It’s at this time I should remember that this movie is actually done by the guy who directed “Huge… tracts of land.”
1:15 – “Behold my magic wand and unleash your golden orbs.” Man, it’s basically poetry.
1:20 – The scene between Plummer and Ruehl doesn’t seem to pass the Bechdel test, but it’s still pretty interesting, watching two very different women approaching dating.
1:23 – I love Robin Williams’ suit, and the line “there’s nothing trashy about romance,” is beautiful.
1:24 – My god, Plummer really nails being awkward and clumsy.
1:26 – The use of Blue and Red in this movie is so beautiful.
1:31 – Jesus, Lydia has had terrible relationships. And Amanda Plummer perfectly nails resignation to the horrible fate. She mirrors the joy, sadness, madness that Williams puts forth in this scene, and it’s impressive as all get-out.
1:35 – Parry begging the Red Knight just to be allowed to move on a little, and then him reliving his wife’s death in such visceral detail. The camerawork and the color is just amazing.
1:37 – My god, the suit as the straightjacket, Parry thanking them for stabbing him, the train covering up the sounds of his torment, this is an intense minute of film.
1:40 – Not gonna lie, this weird, spontaneous, post-sex breakup thing never made sense to me.
1:41 – “Do you love me?” “I don’t know.” Yeah, seriously, this sequence seems only here to make us realize Jeff Bridges is an asshole. But, it just doesn’t really seem to follow completely logically. I dunno.
1:42 – Ruehl is a hell of an actress, and my god does she look hot in that outfit.
1:45 – I don’t know if that’s how catatonia works, but, hey, good movie mechanic
1:47 – Man, Jeff Bridges really is selling the “I’m an asshole again” thing. Back in the cell.
1:48 – “I’ve got the power” again. And damn, he just snubs Jeter. The Pricks-formation is total.
1:49 – The TV premise is pretty much just to remind everyone that there’s more than one way to view the movie. In case we forgot. Oh, and we’re bringing back the Pinocchio doll, because, again, levels.
1:51 – Christ, the asylum looks terrible. I wonder if it’s an actual asylum
1:55 – You know you didn’t have to wear Parry’s clothes to do this, right? Also, how is that twine holding up that anchor?
1:56 – “Thank God nobody looks up in this town.” Because Batman isn’t real.
1:57 – Stairwell shot is amazing, lighting and angle makes it look reminiscent of MC Escher.
1:58 – Dude, you’re at the front door. The alarm is now pointless. Run.
2:02 – Jesus, movie, I didn’t need to cry here. Yes, you can miss her Parry. You can miss her and move on.
2:03 – So, he saved the Architect by setting off the burglar alarm? Interesting twist.
2:06 – Come on, Jack, you know she deserves better. Show her you care, you asshole.
2:08 – I know the movie ending isn’t real, but it’s beautiful.