From 1977’s Jabberwocky on, director Terry Gilliam has been fascinated with legends — and for him, the biggest legend of all may be his own. Wrangling publicly with studio execs to get 1985’s Brazil released, spending so much money on 1989’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen that the film’s insurance company closed down the set and almost had him fired, the former Monty Python animator has carved out a persona that comes close to overshadowing his movies themselves: He’s the avenging artist tilting a lance at the monstrous, soul-grinding Hollywood behemoth.

Whether you think Gilliam’s a genuine hero or a self-aggrandizing Don Quixote, there’s no denying his go-for-baroque originality. And it’s nice to know that in an era when most mainstream movies resemble slices of identical headcheese, a skilled lunatic can still find an audience hungry for a smorgasbord. But Gilliam needs Hollywood — its money and distribution channels — more than it needs him, and The Fisher King may be his attempt to make mass-appeal peace. It has stars (Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges), it has relevance (the homeless, media callousness), and it has only one dark knight from hell — from this director, that’s restraint. It even has a pleasant, if puny, message: The only way people will survive this brutal modern world is to, yep, get in touch with their feelings.

For all of The Fisher King‘s surface conventionality, though, Gilliam can’t resist the temptation to live up to the legends. The movie follows a slick, cynical radio-talk-show host, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), whose life falls apart when one of the callers he regularly taunts goes out and shotguns patrons at a Manhattan bar. Three years later, Jack’s a knot of stumblebum self-pity; even though he lives with Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), a gum-chewing mother hen who runs a video store, he’s one step away from the streets. Then he meets Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless man with a rich Arthurian inner life: Parry is convinced that the Holy Grail is hidden in a crenellated Park Avenue mansion and has visions of an evil knight-demon chasing him down city streets. He’s also, of course, the widower of a woman who was killed in that bar. When Jack discovers this, he tries to wash away his guilt, first by giving Parry money, then by fixing him up with his gawky misfit dream girl (Amanda Plummer).

That match game provides The Fisher King with its most potently charming moments: It’s a charge to see Gilliam for once applying his talents to human-size material. The actors respond too, especially Bridges, with a hard-nosed performance that’s at least as worthy of an Oscar nomination as the thusly honored Williams and Ruehl.

Yet in his heart, Gilliam doesn’t trust simplicity. A perversely gonzo showman, he loads up this slender morality tale with excess visual baggage, like a scene in Grand Central station in which commuters suddenly transform into waltzing couples: It’s a lovely moment, but Gilliam just lets it go on and on. Then, too, there’s something hypocritical in the way The Fisher King condemns the media’s trivialization of street people (through the character of a TV producer pitching a sitcom about ”three wacky homeless characters”) but peddles the equally trite notion that the homeless are soulful ”wise fools.”

Still, this is essentially a small-scale drama about two men and their crises of faith, and as a small-screen video rental it works better than a dreamscape like Brazil. To get a real sense of Terry Gilliam’s hubris, you need a videodisc player: The laser edition of The Fisher King is a meticulously packaged testament to directorial self-regard.

True, it offers the standard superior visuals of laser and a letterboxed print that preserves the film’s wide-screen image. But there’s also a wearying alternate audio track on which Gilliam describes how he loves this and that shot, and on the last disc, a host of extras: storyboards, costume tests, screenplay pages, and — last but not least — six additional scenes that never made it to the final cut. None are crucial — the most interesting shows Amanda Plummer’s character rocking out to an Ethel Merman record in the privacy of her apartment — yet the introductory title cards to these scenes smack of a doctoral thesis: a scene of Jack and one of his girlfriends ”further elaborates on the sexual dynamics of his split character” and so forth. And when Gilliam states on the alternate soundtrack that the extra takes allow ”you, the viewer, [to] decide if me, Terry Gilliam, the director, is good at his job or not, or whether you could have done a better job with the same material,” you may feel like throwing things at the screen. The cassette version should be enough for most people; this laser package is only for those who love Terry Gilliam as much as he seems to love himself. B-

The Fisher King
  • Movie
  • 137 minutes