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The Fisher King's clumsy fantasy plot falls flat


Written by Richard LaGravenese.

Directed by Terry Gilliam.

Starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams.


ONE OF THE KEY ELEMENTS OF A good fantasy is a sense of wonder and awe. If a story can convey this attitude to the audience, then its humor and excitement will become even more involving. If, as in Terry Gilliam's new film, The Fisher King, the fantasy element falls flat, it threatens to drag the entire film down with it.

The Fisher King opens with Jack Lucas, New York City's most popular shock DJ (adequately played by Jeff Bridges), engaging in verbal battles with the callers of his hit radio talk show. Jack strikes down any hint of optimism with his lethal cynicism. Sitting comfortably in his cold and sterile glass-enclosed apartment, Jack rehearses lines for a proposed sitcom based loosely on his glamorous life. One line that he takes considerable pride in mastering is a wickedly sarcastic, "Well, forgive me!" -- a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the redemption that Jack will soon seek. Moments later, he learns that his arrogant attitude towards life has triggered a tragedy that will whisk him away from his fame.

Three years later, Jack is working in a sleazy video store run by his new girlfriend, Anne Napolitano, played by the very competent Mercedes Ruehl. His daily ritual reduced to getting drunk and watching reruns of the TV show that he was originally going to star in, Jack decides

to end his miserable life. He is saved, though, by a group of the homeless led by Parry (Robin Williams). Parry is a former professor of medieval history, who due to a tragedy linked to Jack's past, has assumed a different personality. Parry now regularly talks to whom he calls "hundreds of the cutest floating fat guys you ever saw."

From this point on, the plot remains fairly entertaining, thanks mainly to Williams' hilarious (if not deep) portrayal of Parry, but begins to wallow in predictable formulas. Parry tells Jack about the two things that he desires most in the world -- a shy, klutzy accountant named Lydia, well-played by Amanda Plummer, and a cup that he believes is the Holy Grail being kept in an East Side billionaire's castle-like home. Jack tries to win the fair maiden and the sacred object for Parry, at first because he wants to feel less guilt, but eventually because he wants to help his new friend. At one point, Parry tells Jack the legend of the Fisher King, a ruler whose world was collapsing around him until a fool was able to show him how to satisfy his goals, in case anyone in the audience couldn't see well into the next reel.

These aren't exactly earthshaking themes at work here, but they are ones with which director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, is familiar. His previous trilogy of movies -- Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen -- each dealt with how imagination and fantasy could provide escape from realities bogged down by compassionless logic. In those films, however, Gilliam filled the screen with dazzling images in which the estranged heroes could recognize both their fears and their refuges. The Fisher King seems to use Parry's imaginings of the Grail and his hallucinations of a Red Knight as a clumsy, and often unnecessary, means of paralleling the story with a medieval quest. Only one scene in the movie, where as Parry sees Lydia the rush hour commuters in Grand Central Station stop pushing and shoving each other and begin to waltz, manages to give unforced and spontaneous insight into Parry's mind.

The Fisher King is far from being a disaster. Most of the movie is genuinely funny, and the 21/4-hour running time goes by rather quickly. But the simplicity and conventionality of the plot eventually undermine all of the film's attributes, ultimately resulting in a disappointment. Audiences would be better off seeing Dead Again for more entertainment, the amazing Barton Fink for more intelligence and even Brazil if they want to see Terry Gilliam's good version of The Fisher King.