Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Somehow, Robin Williams plus Terry Gilliam does not equal pure lunacy

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We honor the life and career of Robin Williams by looking back on some of the late actor’s finest performances.


The Fisher King (1991)

Terry Gilliam’s qualities as a director are not unlike Robin Williams’ as an actor: Both have enormous and distinctive imaginations that sometimes operate better under some kind of constraint. Many of Gilliam’s best films come from more disciplined screenplays written by others, while many of Williams’ best performances emphasize his abilities as a serious actor. Pairing the two, then, seems like a recipe for unbridled id, like letting the flying head Williams briefly played in The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen run amok for two hours. But The Fisher King brings out the best in both artists—as well as in Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl.

Bridges has the straighter role in this buddy comedy. He plays Jack, a shock-jock whose cavalier remarks convince a listener to commit mass murder. Three years after this incident, he’s marinating in self-pity, loathing, and booze; mistaken for a homeless man on the streets of New York, Jack meets Parry (Williams), an actual vagrant with a connection to his past. Playing the unstable character—who cracks jokes while shouting at invisible floating people and who leads Jack into an alternate world of homelessness and mental illness beneath the surface of New York—allows Williams to indulge his manic side. But Parry isn’t a man using his sense of humor to bring people together, as is the case with some of the other seriocomic roles Williams has occupied. His moments of free-association and whimsy are part of a coping mechanism, however fanciful. Williams draws on this sense of sadness beneath the grinning exterior to avoid stumbling into condescending magical-homeless territory.

Back in 1991, surely some grumbled that the showier Williams performance received an Oscar nomination, while Bridges was relegated to the sidelines for more subtle work. (Call it the Tom Cruise-in-Rain Man non-award). But both actors are terrific in The Fisher King, as are Ruehl as Jack’s patient but blunt-spoken girlfriend and Plummer as a mousy woman Parry admires from afar. The other speaking parts in the movie are minimal; as grand as some of the movie’s visuals are (the famous scene of a bustling Grand Central Station stepping into a massive waltz, or the appearance of a fiery, menacing Red Knight, for example), Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese are unafraid to go small for the sake of the characters. The movie finds beauty in a setup as simple as the four of them sitting in a booth at a Chinese restaurant, and even a quest for the Holy Grail turns intimate. Williams modulates his performance accordingly; despite his outbursts, he never goes over the top. Against the odds, he and Gilliam ground each other.

Availability: The Fisher King is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.