JANITORS OF GOD

Terry Gilliam’s muddled bummer The Fisher King is still good enough to believe it’s more than his movie, or Robin Williams’s, or Jeff Bridges’s; it really belongs to Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer. Altogether expected that whatever role Ruehl plays, she would enlarge and make it her own—as she did when she damn near stole Married to the Mob from Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell. Even off screen she makes you remember her: when Tom Hanks reverts back to childhood 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 “fuck me” earrings, she never stops acting, reacting, moving, gesturing. The business might push the scene-stealing limits had she acted largely opposite a star equally 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 the absorbent boyfriend Bridges and that’s the awfully good truth: she’s the next better thing—a revival of B movie broads of the 40s and 50s reaching the A stratosphere. When Robert Pratt’s camera captures cigarette smoke exiting from her nostrils, she’s a magnificent retrograde dragon with that old time religion. And Plummer, as the clumsy love interest for Williams, is so engagingly daffy that just when it looks like we’re going to die from her embarrassments (most notably at an Asian restaurant), she startles with fresh bits. Alternately ugly and weirdly cute, her lily white skin and reddish brown-blond hair somehow mesh into just the right craziness; she’s no ordinary loon, and she’s not going to swallowed up by Williams. Why the women in support become major attractions when the movie is about two men, who at spiritual low ebb find each other, probably has to do with both the script by Richard LaGravenese and the usual overwrought touches by Gilliam. A real writer’s product, the story and the dialogue (minus the ad-libbing) belong to the traditions of literature, which is to say the movie is by itself a read. Mixing Arthurian quests for the Holy Grail of compassion with the inexplicable horror of modern spontaneous violence, and throwing in Lawrence’s desire to see male friendship so pure that nakedness wouldn’t corrupt it, LaGravenese delivers quite the load. And made heavier by all of Gilliam’s hallucinatory visuals. The disjunctive elements of their allegory don’t fall into place easily; it’s like they’re bumming through their artistic intentions to find the value of the friendship between suicidals Bridges and Williams. Both are in despair over deep personal losses when they meet: Bridges 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 equally depressed Williams pops in to save him. Taking Bridges back to his home, a boiler room-like domicile as a set of classic Gilliam contraptions of disorder, Williams says, “I’m the janitor of God.” Not meant to be a throw-away, and certainly not meaningless; I’d argue it’s a line coming too soon in the story: in the wider scheme of plot, it’s the clue of purpose—they will clean out each other’s demons. Suffering from an off-screen transition, Bridges is weak as a drunk and then proceeds to get sturdier as the movie plods along. (It’s at least 20 minutes too long.) Though Williams is fairly toned down, there’s more than enough kinesthesia whirling about him that we can lose focus on his spiritual renewal while in the throes of New York street scenes and the Arthurian Horse of Apocalypse. Thankfully he’s not working up another media-inspired trashkrieg. Often Gilliam’s visions are too exhaustively creative to derive much more out of them other than admiration for the smothering spectacle. This would be one of the rare times when his actors clean up the mess by pushing aside much of the clutter to spare our sensibilities.

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