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This movie won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes Ruehl.)

‘The Fisher King’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 20, 1991

Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King" is an odd beast. In this case, that's something to treasure. A modern epic that fuses myth with hard-edged reality, it's a one-of-a-kind, thoroughly engaging experience.

It's also a thoroughly long experience. Gilliam never met a film he couldn't overextend. Better to think of this 137-minute drama as several movies in one. "Fisher" has two redemption stories, in which jaded disc jockey Jeff Bridges and traumatized drifter Robin Williams attempt to save each other. It has two love stories. It's a dark, foreboding movie. Yet it's a surreal comedy too. There are colorful visions of red knights, but there is also the harsh truth of the streets. And let's not forget the eternal quest for the Holy Grail.

As the shock-radio DJ, Bridges has a malignant hatred of people. He insults his listeners daily, then he gets stoned in a black, glass tower of a penthouse while listening to the anthemic song "The Power." He's riding high until an emotionally distraught listener takes one of his on-air suggestions too literally. It results in a bloodbath at a fancy restaurant. Bridges goes into a three-year funk, drinking himself to near death and living off girlfriend and video store owner Mercedes Ruehl. At an all-time low, rocks tied to his ankles, he prepares to end it all in the river.

Enter Williams, an apparently deranged but witty homeless person. After pulling Bridges from the brink of death, Williams informs the DJ he's destined for greatness. All Bridges has to do is find the Grail (conveniently located in Manhattan) and save the ragged drifter's soul. Williams could also use a little romantic help with Amanda Plummer, a clumsy wallflower who works in a publishing office.

It turns out Williams is the victim of a traumatic experience. A former professor, he now lives in a hole in the wall, talks to invisible "fat people," and believes a fire-emitting, mounted knight is constantly pursuing him. Bridges realizes he has to save Williams in order to save himself.

Bridges, a solid actor, lends weighty credence to a modern spiritual journey. At his lowest points, he looks as if he might implode with cynicism. Not enough can be said about Williams. He's a dynamo in whatever he does. He goes from wildly hysterical to poignantly shy, his words spilling out in manic brilliance. When Bridges departs after a night at Williams's pad, Williams yells after him, "Hey, now that you know where we are, come back. Don't be a stranger. Come back, we'll rummage!"

Ruehl and Plummer rise far above their significant-other roles. Ruehl's facial reactions are a specialty. Plummer is a perfect, wild-card partner to Williams. She's gawky, graceful and sexy all at the same time. At dinner in a Chinese restaurant, she and Williams work up an amusing tango of clumsiness, as they battle treacherous chopsticks and slippery meat dumplings. In this movie, at least, they're made for each other.

Scripted by Richard LaGravenese, "Fisher" was not Gilliam's idea. But it ties in with his mythical obsessions, from "The Time Bandits" to "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." As director, he creates some tremendous moments. His crowning scene takes place during morning rush hour at Grand Central Terminal. As Williams waits for Plummer to pass, the station (in his reverie) becomes an ornate ballroom. The commuters suddenly dance with each other in a delirious waltz. Before Williams can claim Plummer as a partner, however, a bell goes off. The dancers become commuters and the working world rushes back in. In this, Gilliam is in his element -- leaping effortlessly from one world to another.

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