A Tribute to the Late Robin Williams
This one of my favorite Robin Williams films followed closely by Dead Poet’s Society. The review is reprinted from the October, 1991, issue of Visual Parables.
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 5: Language 7. Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
Terry Gilliam’s magical film is a delightful story of atonement that evokes laughter and tears. Jeff Bridges, in his best role yet, is Jack, a self-absorbed New York radio talk show host who enjoys heaping disdain on his hapless callers. This backfires when a distraught caller takes literally Jack’s flippant, sarcastic comments. The distraught man not only blasts himself but also several other patrons at a fast food eatery.
Jack’s reaction to the news—an Anglo Saxon expletive. Not only does he lose his current job, but also the chance to star in a new TV sitcom. Ironically, the main character’s signature line, which Jack had been practicing in different styles, was, “Well, forgive me!”
Three years later Jack has been hitting the bottle while living with Ann, owner of a video shop. Jack tortures himself by watching the sitcom, now a great hit. One night he is so low that he staggers out into the street and finds himself at the river’s edge with two cement blocks tied to his feet. Before he can jump he is attacked by two toughs who pour gasoline over him. As one starts to set him afire, a strange figure brandishing a homemade sword and a garbage can lid shield rushes out of the darkness and drives the would-be killers away. His rescuer introduces himself as Parry, Knight in quest of the Holy Grail (played by Robin Williams at his manic best).
After reluctantly getting to know the “knight,” Jack learns from a friend that Parry had been a college professor who broke down when his wife was slaughtered in front of him by Jack’s listener. At last feeling remorse, Jack sets out to atone for his past, first by trying to give Parry money. When this fails, he concocts a funny, elaborate scheme to match up the quirky office worker, whom Parry had been worshipping from afar, with his friend. But atonement is not that simple. At one point he says to Ann, “If I could just pay the rent and be free!”Only when the situation becomes almost hopeless and Jack abandons his, manipulative, self-serving ways in an act of love does he find what he is seeking. And then almost loses it.
This incredibly beautiful visual parable, the only one in fourteen years of reviewing that I viewed a second time before writing about it, is a wonderfully made work in which every thing fits–the subjective camera at the beginning sets us off balance; a finely written script; and a terrific ensemble cast; even a minor character, such as a paraplegic beggar in Grand Central Station who justifies his existence in an engaging way. There is not a lot of God-talk in this film, but itshould become evident that grace carries all four characters along like the current of a mighty river.
Teaching scenes: 1. Parry telling the fairy tale (which gives the film its title) in which the king and the fool mirror his and Jack’s roles.
2. Ann’s confrontation with Jack after he regresses to his old self-absorbed ways–an example of tough love.
3. Parry’s beautiful profession of his love to Lydia, leading to her discovery of herself worth.
4. The irony of Jack’s discovery of the identity of the cup which Parry believes is the Holy Grail–does this really affect its symbolic meaning of grace?
5. The last funny scene in Central Park, so reminiscent of the final scene in Zorba the Greek.
The following is reprinted from my book Films and Faith: Forty Discussion Guides.
The FISHER KING: A Film Guide
Rated R, 1991, 138 min.
Director: Terry Gilliam Writer: Richard LaGravenese
Cast & Characters: Jack-Jeff Bridges; Anne-Mercedes Ruehl; Parry- Robin Williams; Lydia-Amanda Plummer; Homeless singer-Michael Jeter
Themes: Sin & Guilt; Atonement; Reconciliation; The Hero’s Quest.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy?
Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the
kingdom of heaven.
What other film has two quest stories based on a medieval legend combined with two love stories designed to enrich the spirit of all those still young at heart? Director Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits and Brazil) has translated Richard LaGravanese’s unusual screenplay into a film of rare beauty and insight. The Fisher King is the story of one man’s attempt to atone for the terrible hurt he has inflicted upon another man and also of the ancient quest that they follow. There is a touch of the legend of Parcifal and even of Zorba the Greek in this delightful film.
The four actors are perfect in their parts – Jeff Bridges as Jack, the self-centered radio call-in host ruthlessly bent on success; Robin Williams as Parry, driven mad by the shock of the senseless murder of his wife, yet possessed of a child-like understanding of what life is really about; Mercedes Ruehl, who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award as Anne, Jack’s plain talking but big-hearted girl friend; and Amanda Plummer as Lydia, the clumsy woman with little self-esteem whom Parry has loved from afar.
Jack is as self-absorbed as anyone we are ever likely to meet. Successful as the host of a call-in talk show, Jack enjoys playing the god of the airwaves, feeding his own ego off his callers, mainly by insulting them and revealing their stupidity. He goes too far with one caller, who apparently needed just a nudge to go over the brink into homicidal madness. When it is revealed that Jack was the last one to have talked with the mass murderer, he loses his job and sinks into drinking.
Sustained by his girl friend Anne, Jack works in her video store and spends his nights drinking or scoffing at the TV situation comedy which he almost got to star in. After a row with Annie, Jack stumbles out into the night. A little boy, thinking that the unkempt man is homeless, gives him a Pinocchio doll. A little later two angry toughs try to set Jack on fire, but he is rescued by Parry and his band of “knights,” a group of homeless people. Parry thinks he is on a quest for the Holy Grail and that “the little people” have sent Jack to aid in the quest. Jack is taken aback when he learns that Parry is the husband of one of the persons in the restaurant who were shot down by Jack’s deranged caller. The horrible event had so deranged the former professor of medieval literature that he had retreated into a medieval fantasy world. How the now guilt-ridden Jack finds atonement is a fascinating and enlightening tale.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. What is Jack like when we first meet him? What is his attitude toward other people? How is this born out by his reaction to the news that Edwin has killed several people and himself in a restaurant?
2. Is Jack’s decline into drinking due to his sense of guilt or from his brooding about his lost career opportunity? What is the significance of the line from the situation comedy, “Well, forgiivve meee!’? Comment on Jack’s “conversation” with Pinocchio that ends with, “Ya ever get the feeling sometimes…you’re being punished for your sins…?” Compare this concept of “punishment” (also found in many of the Psalms) with Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (NRSV) See any symbolism in the Pinocchio figure? (Wishing upon a star; becoming a real person, etc.)
3. What irony do you see in the attack on Jack as he is about to commit suicide? What did you think of Parry when you first saw him coming to the rescue? Parry = Parcifal; what do you know about this knight? How might you react if someone like Parry declared that you were the one to help in his quest? What do you think of Parry’s designating himself as “the janitor of God”?
4. What do you think of Anne when you first meet her? Of her “theology” of God, man and woman? What seems to be her essential qualities or traits? (Note this in her reaction to Jack’s news that he had been attacked.) How about her definition of the Holy Grail as Jesus’ juice glass”?
5. When Anne finds Jack sorting through his box of radio tapes and mementos of a more prosperous past, Jack confesses his feelings of distress. Comment on his statement, “I wish there was some way I could…just…pay the fine and go home.” What does “pay the fine” reveal about Jack’s concept of the universe? How is this similar to any traditional Christian views of the Atonement? What do you think is in Jack’s mind when he says “go home”? Where does the concept of “going home” fit into theology? (See Luke 15:11-25; II Corinthians 5:1; John 14:1-4)
6. How does Jack try to atone? Does he take his guilt seriously at this point? Compare this to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “cheap grace,” a religion without a cross, an easy way out of guilt and remorse. How is Parry’s reaction to all this childlike? Are money and other things so important to Jack of any value to Parry? Why is Lydia’s obvious incompetence so perfect in keeping with Parry’s character? How is his love different from Jack’s; that is which is centered upon the self, and which is centered upon the other?
7. What is the meaning of the Red Knight? Why red?
8. How is Jack’s attitude toward the stricken transvestite street person typical of society? What about Parry? Note what he does when they are in the lobby of the hospital? How does this experience change Jack a little?
9. Comment on the Grand Central Station episode. What does the “ball room” sequence show about the power of imagination and desire? What do you think of Sid and his philosophy of the role of the beggar?
10. What do you make of the Central Park scene with Parry and Jack? Do you agree with Jack’s cry, “You can’t do this!”? If you know the film Zorba the Greek, compare this scene with that in which Zorba dances for the first time before Basil. What is the point of Parry’s tale of The Fisher King? Do we all overlook the divine, or the extraordinary, amidst the busyness of our lives? How is Parry both the wounded king and the fool? What about Jack?
11. The theme of the fool or of “madness” as being a positive state is found in many other films and stories. Those who know the following films might want to comment on them:
– King of Heart, a tale of a soldier during WW I stumbling upon a lunatic asylum in a deserted town.
–Gigot, a mute simpleton’s influence on a prostitute and her daughter.
–Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which a “chosen” man becomes so obsessed with his quest that he crosses into insanity.
-Oh God!, a grocery clerk’s claims to have been visited by God leads to charges that he is mad or foolish.
12. How is the Chinese dinner scene filled with acts of grace? (In Parry’s mirroring Lydia’s clumsy mistakes.) Is the setting up of this really an act of grace on Jack’s part, or a part of his “cheap grace” attempt to feel better? (What does he do that might indicate that it is the latter?) Were you surprised at Jack’s treatment of Anne? Compare her love to his.
13. What is it that brings Jack to an awareness of his situation? See any irony in the title of the proposed sitcom “Home Free?” Why does he tell the comatose Parry, “I’m not responsible!”? Compare this to Genesis 3:8-12. How is Jack’s final act for Parry both a matter of grace and a means for his atonement?
14. How does the last scene of Jack and Anne show that the wounded king is healed? And the last scene with Parry in Central Park that Jack also has entered into the realm of the holy fool?
15. Have you ever felt like you were either a wounded king/queen or a holy fool? When? Where do you see the need for atonement in your life? At what moments have you seen grace at work? (Those using this guide in a group might want to close with the singing of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”)