Of all the wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic Terry Gilliam films we’ve gotten over the years, none have been accompanied by as much heart, as much earnestness, and as much expertly calibrated saccharine emotion as his 1991 urban fable, The Fisher King.
The film, written by Richard LaGravenese, was the first time Gilliam, a member of the legendary Monty Python troupe, didn’t direct something based on his own writing. The Fisher King is a grimy melodrama, an adventure, a deep dive into the poisonous fruits of fame, and the LaGravenese touch adds a layer of emotional depth that was never really a major tool in Gilliam’s bag.
Jack (Jeff Bridges) is an arrogant talk radio DJ who is absolutely lost inside his ever-expanding ego. His flippant dismissal – and subsequent stirring up – of a disturbed caller one night motivates said caller to walk into a nightclub with a shotgun and open fire. The tragedy sends Jack into a spiral of self hatred and depression, and into the arms of Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). One night after some heavy drinking, thoughts of suicide, and being mistaken for a homeless person by a gang of kids looking to literally burn away the city’s destitute, a self-proclaimed knight of the streets, Parry (Robin Williams), steps in and saves the day.
The connection between Jack and Parry is apparent early: Parry was an educated member of high society whose wife was murdered that night in the nightclub, and the tragedy fractured his mind. Now, he is a man on a quest to find the holy grail – on the upper west side, no less – while fending off the Red Knight, a manifestation of his trauma and his past life that drives him mad. Jack feels it’s his duty to help.
Not only does Jack help Parry with his seemingly fruitless quest, he also has an idea that will potentially help Parry get his life back in some sense of order. That involves Lydia, a bumbling loner who doesn’t really walk to work every day, so much as she is pushed along sidewalks and through train stations by a wave of indifferent humans who don’t even realize she’s there, like driftwood down a river. Parry realizes she’s there, however, and he is absolutely smitten, in love with every little crazy tick and pratfall. Jack, with the help of Anne, set up a date based on false pretenses involving a phony video rental contest, and a suit with plenty of staples along the hem line.
Lydia is strange, and guarded, but Parry can see through her aggressive exterior. The setup of the date is chaotic and buzzing with nervous energy; the dinner at a Chinese restaurant is awkward and clumsy, and Plummer is doing some marvelous physical work. And then, on a dime, it’s beautiful:
What begins as a terrific bit of improv and physical comedy, Williams’ strength as a comedian, Parry’s rendition of “Lydia” breaks all the energy and emotion of the scene down into one touching moment. The song captures the mood of the table, and for the slightest moment, Parry is normal again.
It’s a devastating moment, given what happens later that night when Parry’s psychosis manifests itself as the thunderous Red Knight. Despite the tragedy that follows in the wake of this dinner, it’s the turning point of the picture, where Jack realizes the feelings he has for Anne go beyond self-loathing, and where Parry and Lydia connect on another level.
It allows the end to happen the way it happens, and it’s a scene I absolutely love.