'Fisher King' is messy but fascinating and impressive

September 27, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

Jack Lucas is a shock DJ in New York who thinks he's about to make it big in a TV sitcom. "Well, forgiiiiiiive me!" he keeps repeating from the script -- a phrase that will become a trademark in the mouth of another actor because Jack is not destined to deliver it.

What derails Jack's plans is that one of his nerdy listeners takes one of the shock jock's offhand remarks too seriously and, with a shotgun, proceeds to off most of the patrons of a midtown watering spot named Babbit's. Jack must now seek forgiveness in earnest.

That's the beginning of Terry Gilliam's ambitious, messy and fascinating new film, "The Fisher King." This movie can be described with equal accuracy as the search for the Holy Grail in New York City and as the efforts of a guy to get a date for a friend so that he can feel less guilty.

One of the victims of the Babbit's massacre is a professor of medieval history named Henry Sagan (Robin Williams in yet another over-the-top performance): When his wife is murdered, he loses his mind and becomes a street person who names himself Parry.

Jack, too, has fallen on hard times. He's become an alcoholic whose only tie to reality is the down-to-earth video store owner, Ann (Mercedes Ruehl in a performance as good as that of her Mafia wife in "Married to the Mob"). On one drunken journey into self-pity, Jack is saved from a pair of thugs by Parry, who regards himself as a knight on a quest, and by his band of merry men -- an assortment of the homeless who are as wretched as he is.

Back in his boiler room digs, Parry explains to Jack that he is "the Janitor of God" and that he has located the Holy Grail in a mansion on Fifth Avenue. When Jack tells him that the grail is only a myth -- the title of the movie alludes to one of the famous stories about the Grail's miraculous redemptive powers -- Parry responds: "What do you think the Crusades were? A publicity stunt?"

Jack knows that Parry's nuts, but he owes his life to him and when he finds out why Parry went mad, he realizes that he owes him yet more. So he sets out to redeem himself by trying to fix Parry up with the girl of his dreams -- Lydia, an ugly-ducking, klutzy accountant whose need for love has captured Parry's chivalrous imagination.

This summary makes a very complicated movie sound much too simple. Gilliam ("Time Bandits," "Brazil" and "Baron Munchausen") is one of the most imaginative and ambitious of filmmakers and here he tackles not only human redemption, but also the plight of the homeless and the individual need of Man and Woman for each other.

Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has given him a lot of balls to juggle and Gilliam can hardly be blamed if he drops them from time to time. Part of the problem with the film may be that it isn't Gilliam's screenplay. In his other movies, the divine madness was all Gilliam's. Here, he seems somewhat constrained by the concerns of conventional filmmaking -- such as a romance with a happy ending. And this interest in the initially bittersweet -- and, finally, triumphantly sweet -- romance of Bridges and Ruehl, often robs the movie of its off-the-wall energy.

But the film's painterly effects -- Parry's phantasms of the fearsome Red Knight, who seems to be a burning tree grafted on to a huge horse, are particularly impressive -- and its madcap humor clearly show Gilliam's distinctive stamp. The parts of "The Fisher King" are more than its sum, but it's still impressive work.

'The Fisher King'

Starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Released by Tri-Star

Rated R

** 1/2

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