JANITORS OF GOD

Muddled allegory, The Fisher King is worth seeing if you haven’t yet, not solely as a Terry Gilliam picture, or as a duet for Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, but mostly for Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer. We’ve come to expect that whatever Ruehl plays, she’ll flesh out all the possibilities to make the role singular—as she did in stealing Married to the Mob from Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell. While awards for best actress in 1993 went to Holly Hunter’s mute in The Piano, the best “talking” performance belonged to Ruehl in Lost in Yonkers. A bomb at the b.o., she frightened audiences: appearing in a pink doll getup rising high above the waist and too short at the knee, in Buster Browns, carrying a purse looking made of heavily starched doilies, she’s Shirley Temple as pre-Gump. Off screen she’s memorable too: when Tom Hanks returns home in Big, her motherly voice gets you in the heart. In Fisher King, tramped to the max in red off-the-shoulder blouse, red bra, slip and red fingernails, with dangling “do me” earrings, she never stops acting, reacting, moving, gesturing. The busyness might push the scene-stealing limits had she acted mainly opposite a star as frenetic as Williams—they’d not only be at war with each other but with the audience as well. As is she’s close to overdose yet who’d want the role performed any other way? “I’m not a modern woman,” she admits to absorbent boyfriend Bridges. With Robert Pratt’s camera capturing cigarette smoke exiting the nostrils, she’s a retrograde dragon with that old time religion, a relic of B movie broads of the 40s and 50s reaching A stratosphere, earning a slew of awards including the Oscar. The clumsy love interest for Williams, Plummer is engagingly daffy; just when you’re going to die from her embarrassments (notably at an Asian restaurant), she ERs lifesaving bits. Alternately ugly and weirdly cute, her lily white skin and reddish brown-blond hair somehow meshing into the right kind of flakiness, she’s no ordinary loon, and she’s not going to be swallowed up by Williams. Why these two women in support become major respites when the movie is about two men, who at emotional low ebb need each other, has to do with Richard LaGravenese’s script and the usual overwrought touches by Gilliam. A real writer’s product, the story and dialogue (minus ad-libs) belong to both humanist and romanticist traditions in literature. Mixing Arthurian quests for the Holy Grail of compassion with the horror of modern spontaneous violence and depressive disorder, adding romances as hopeful restoratives, throwing in D. H. Lawrence’s desire to see friendship so pure that nakedness wouldn’t subvert it, LaGravenese delivers quite the noetic load. And made heavier by Gilliam’s hallucinatory visuals: the disjunctive allegoric elements don’t fall into place easily, at times the director seems to be slumming through his usual artistic junkiness to find the value of friendship between suicidals Bridges and Williams. Both are in despair over deep personal losses when they meet: Bridges is tying cement brick blocks to his feet about to drown himself when ruffians come upon him and decide to finish him off for kicks until homeless and likewise depressed Williams pops in to save him. Taking Bridges back to his shelter, a boiler room-like domicile as a set of classic Gilliam contraptions of disarray, Williams says, “I’m the janitor of God.” Not meant to be a throw-away, and certainly not meaningless; arguably the timing of its arrival reduces reverberation. In the wider scheme, the declarative is the clue to purpose—cleaning out each other’s demons. Suffering from an off-screen transition, Bridges is weak as a drunk and then proceeds to get sturdy as the movie plods along. (Had to wait two years to see him go full throttle in Fearless, in which he’s revelation: feeling the ever-increasing fears of the airline passengers as the crash approaches, you also feel his sudden freedom from his and hate director Peter Weir for putting you through it). Williams is fairly toned down, though there’s more than enough kinesthesia whirling about him to almost lose focus on his renewal while in the throes of New York street scenes and the Arthurian Horse of Apocalypse. Before and since, he’d been given the green light by moviemakers to work up media-inspired trashkriegs, popular with audiences; here he’s a burn-out, and not by character alone: he’s drooping, and now you question if what’s on screen is premonition. (Those observing more carefully noticed he hadn’t been particularly magical for at least his last decade, that there was a desperation in his brand.) Often Gilliam’s visions are equally too exhaustive and jumbled to get much more out of them other than wonderment for the smothering spectacle. This would be one of the rare times his actors clean up by pushing aside much of his clutter to spare your sensibilities.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 9/2017)  All Rights Reserved.