Terry Gilliam, who was born in Minneapolis, has chosen to live in England since the late ’60s, when he became the naughty-boy animator of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the years since, this agreeably cracked expatriate has turned to directing his own movies, teemingly surreal storybook fantasies with an undercurrent of British gallows humor. His first film, the Pythonesque Jabberwocky (1977), was a full-throttle wallow in medieval muck, complete with an eager fast-food vendor peddling rats-on-a-stick. That was followed by the sci-fi fairy tale Time Bandits (1981), which featured a cast of noisy dwarfs, and the spectacular cult favorite Brazil (1985), a head-spinning retro-future comedy that was like 1984 reimagined by an acid-flashback casualty. Then came the windy and tedious The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989).

Thus far, there have been three things you could safely say about Gilliam: He has a gift for pop imagery that’s at once breathtaking and comically charged. He likes — no, adores — squalor. (He thinks it’s funny.) And he couldn’t tell a straight story if you put a gun to his head. Now, though, he’s returned to America with The Fisher King. This new film doesn’t offer much in the way of rats, dwarfs, or Orwell-meets-Python visuals. What it does have are big Hollywood stars (Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges), a contemporary New York setting, and a wacky-yet-sentimental story line. What it wants to be is heartwarming. What it is, in a word, is a mess.

Jack Lucas (Bridges) is a smugly cynical Manhattan-radio ”shock jock” who bundles his long straight hair into a fashionable ponytail. Jack’s phone-in show is so successful that he’s on the verge of clinching a role on a TV sitcom. Then he takes a fall. A caller — a deranged nerd — gets inspired by one of Jack’s anti-yuppie rants and opens fire in a dance club, killing several people. Jack hears the news on television, aghast.

Cut to three years later. Jack is now a self-hating drunk running a video store with his devoted, tough-broad girlfriend (Mercedes Ruehl). How did he get there? We assume, at first, that he was fired. But no: He dropped out of the radio business because of his guilty conscience. The Fisher King is the story of his redemption, his return to humanity.

Sozzled on Jack Daniels, Jack wanders into the Manhattan night and is saved from a vicious mugging by Parry (Williams), a homeless man who keeps jabbering on about the Holy Grail. Jack knows that Parry is crazy, but he starts hanging out with him anyway. They’re two desperate men — one lost in fantasy, the other without any dreams left. As a token of friendship, Jack helps set up a rendezvous between Parry and Lydia (Amanda Plummer), the hopeless klutz Parry has a crush on from afar. The two have a nerds-night-out date at a Chinese restaurant, and for a while The Fisher King turns into a lunar version of Marty, the story of two made-for-each-other losers falling in love under the urban sky.

The act of bringing these two together helps reawaken Jack’s spirit. Then, just as we’ve got the movie pegged as a goofball soap opera, it returns to Parry’s obsession with the Holy Grail and the myth of the Fisher King — the wounded man (i.e., Jack) who shall be healed when he finds that mystical cup. The Grail is out there, Parry insists. It’s sitting on the bookshelf in a castle-shaped apartment building on Fifth Avenue, just waiting to be discovered.

Much of the The Fisher King is corny and conventional, yet nothing in the movie quite fits together. Why does the dour, sleazeball Jack come back to see Parry in the first place? Gilliam never establishes a convincing bond between the two men; we simply accept their friendship because we know the film depends on it. And how can we believe in Parry anyway when Robin Williams’ coy shtick keeps undercutting the movie’s reality? Williams performs with a glittery-eyed fervor, and there’s no denying that he lends his patented comic dazzle to one-liners like ”Now that you know where we are, don’t be a stranger. Come back — we’ll rummage!” The trouble with lines like this, which feel like they were improvised by Williams on the set, is that the very thing that makes them funny — the comic’s zippy, space-age irony — instantly neuters the character’s ”craziness.” It’s just Robin the manic genius showing off.

Bridges plays Jack with a pungent bitterness and rue. The more the movie goes on, though, the less he seems to be at the center of it. Jack ends up a supporting player, a straight man. The women do better. Amanda Plummer, playing a modern variation on a Chaplin heroine, makes the most of her gawky asexuality. Knocking over cartons of videos, she’s like a comically stiff, autistic bird. And Mercedes Ruehl, who plays a working-class hot mama far more organically than Susan Sarandon does, has a vivacious earthiness, her anger searing through like a hot iron. Ruehl is a major talent in need of a major role. With any luck, The Fisher King will be the one that gets her noticed.

Gilliam, a wizard with images, lacks the feel for dramatic continuity and pace that a conventional director needs. He lumbers from dark satirical scenes of Jack’s radio show to fantasy visions of a faceless red knight galloping through Manhattan — the rider resembles a tree on horseback — to low-key domestic psychodrama. Much of the time, he’s content to have Williams and Bridges just trudging through Central Park. The Fisher King is full of eccentric touches, but there’s an air of thrift-shop desperation to Gilliam’s approach. When Michael Jeter, as an effeminate homeless man, dons a dress and high heels and launches into a high-decibel cabaret number, it’s literally such a showstopper that you realize the show is going to have trouble getting started again. If The Fisher King proves anything, it’s that Terry Gilliam may finally be too idiosyncratic to go Hollywood, even if that’s what he thinks he wants. C

The Fisher King
  • Movie
  • 137 minutes