Picks and Pans Review: The Fisher King

updated 09/23/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 01:00AM

Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams

And now for something not so very different from director Terry Gilliam's other eccentric, dazzling, sell-indulgent movies, such as Brazil or Time Bandits.

One brilliant strain runs throughout this film—the acting of Bridges, Williams, Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer. Like fine athletes, they raise each other's level of play.

Bridges is a Manhattan radio call-in-show host who specializes in insulting listeners. Williams is a man traumatized when his wile is killed by one of Bridges's callers in a restaurant massacre. Ruehl plays a woman who takes Bridges in after the massacre ruins his career. And Plummer is a shy woman with whom Williams falls madly in love when he sees her on the street.

There is already a movie-and-a-half here, particularly since the four actors make their characters so substantial. Williams, especially, emits almost visible emotion as a man so disoriented he lives on the street, imagining himself to be a knight of the garbage heaps.

As the main characters' lives come together, sparks of love, guilt, anger, fear and hope fly all over. Gilliam stages a marvelous restaurant scene in which the cynical Bridges and Ruehl, having fixed Williams and Plummer up on a date, watch over them like proud parents. First-time screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's script is appealingly unpredictable. One moment Williams will muse, "There are three things you need in life: respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis and a blue blazer." Yet Bridges can also despair, "I'm out there every day, trying to decide what I'm doing—why it is that whatever I have, it feels like I have nothing."

Variation in tone is one thing. But the movie is riddled with surrealistic sequences. Some, such as commuters in Grand Central Station breaking into a mass waltz, offer compensatory grace while crippling the pace. Others, such as a specter Williams keeps seeing of a fiery fiend mounted on a huge charger, are silly—the specter looks more like a flaming mulberry bush riding a horse than a symbol of terror. Still others, such as Williams's penchant for running around Central Park naked, are embarrassing. (Williams, for the record, is amazingly hairy; any more furry and he'd be hunted for his pelt.)

One thing the movie never is, is dull. Its 137 minutes whiz by, and this is a film with a rich aftertaste—it's hard to imagine seeing it and not wanting to talk (or argue) about it. Gilliam may be a yarn-spinner who doesn't know when to stop, but he gives you your money's worth. (R)

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