Published Jun 29, 2015As discussed on the commentary track with director Terry Gilliam and the extended "Making of" documentary included with the Criterion Blu-ray release of The Fisher King, this film was an unlikely departure for both Gilliam and Robin Williams. Prior to production, Gilliam was known as a bit of an eccentric troublemaker. As noted in the interview supplements, some studio heads referred to him as "fucking crazy."
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had been a gruelling experience for all involved and proved to be a box office failure for Tri-Star. This was why the suggestion that he helm The Fisher King, which was written by a then-unknown Richard LaGravenese, was such a peculiar and even somewhat taboo idea. But, part of what attracted Robin Williams to the film — Williams, of course, having substantial box office draw at the time — was Gilliam's involvement. What concerned those surrounding the production was that this story of a radio shock jock falling from grace and befriending a homeless man whose life he'd inadvertently ruined was a very emotional piece; Williams had been known mostly for comedy at the time, and Gilliam had made surreal epics devoid of a serious tone.
Oddly enough, what made The Fisher King such intriguing and exceptional Awards bait fare was this peculiar pairing of people. LaGravenese's script was hokey, and the presentation of a Howard Stern-like figure falling from grace and seeking redemption by "fixing" the life of a man whose life was ruined by a senseless killing was trite, even in its time. The subject of mass shootings was as hot-button as Stern's antics, making this project little more than a puff piece — on paper. The refusal to conform to a reassuring format and the introduction of a mostly imbalanced relationship between Jack (Jeff Bridges) and video shop owner, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) was a little bit challenging, but even that was sort of indicative of the times, seeing as Anne is merely a shrill nag that waxes maternal with Jack, even though he's just a mopey, indulgent loser.
Despite this pandering sensibility, Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer (playing his socially dysfunctional love interest) really made their characters pop. Yes, Williams tackled some familiar territory by having the usual manic outbursts, but the seething rage and mental illness beneath the wackiness really seeped out here; he was vulnerable. Similarly, Plummer's generalized "oddball" character was given some depth by her portrayal of a woman that confronts the world awkwardly because of a quiet terror and hatred of normative standards. And even the humdrum relationship between Bridges and Ruehl was invigorated by a genuine sense of emotional turbulence, which is explained in detail in the Blu-ray supplements (Gilliam created a contained environment that supported emotional moments).
But beyond the acting, which is indisputably strong all around, it was Gilliam's ability to adhere to the needs of a conventional story without sacrificing his unique vision of the world. Gilliam's New York is littered with garbage, steam grates and strange dilapidated buildings where life unexpectedly exists. It's a manic world where people thrown away by society are in every corner, given a personality and a story, when normally they would simply be left in the shadows. In many ways, Gilliam's understanding of these peripheral, marginalized people and his refusal to merely dismiss or categorize them is what gives The Fisher King its dignity and heart. Everyone has a story and complex history. regardless of their socio-economic disposition.
The essay included with the Criterion Blu-ray and the "Red Knight" supplement discuss the referenced myth of King Arthur, and even the decision to use Camelot as an aesthetic backdrop, extensively. And while some of the similarities and mirroring are somewhat evocative of it, the reference always feels a tad strained, like a tag on for artistic legitimacy. It doesn't hinder the film at all, but it doesn't really add a great deal to it, either.
As expected, this release is the definitive version of The Fisher King, covering every possible aspect of production while providing Criterion's usual high standards of audio and video presentation.