Three years ago things could not have been going better for talk radio DJ Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) as he already enjoyed fame across New York and the promise of extending that renown with a new sitcom opportunity coming up. As he sat in his bath reciting his lines he particularly relished his new catchphrase, "Forgive me!", completely unaware that at that moment across town, one of his regular callers had taken his pronouncements on the worthlessness of yuppies too much to heart. The man was mentally unstable and took a shotgun into a nearby restaurant, then killed seven people followed by himself. Which is why, now, Jack has a job in a lowly video store...
And he's an alcoholic to boot, or getting there at any rate. You'll see a lot of redemption in Hollywood movies, where they like to tell audiences that no matter how badly you've behaved, there's always a chance that you'll get your reward for putting your life back on track and being nice to people - even, in some cases, if you've killed someone or something really awful like that. Jack Lucas here didn't pull the trigger, yet he still feels the responsibility for the tragedy that ruined his llfe, not to mention those of many others and he cannot envisage a way back from the hell of self-loathing he has wound up in. But it's not completely hopeless for him, as he has a job, a girlfriend - Anne (Mercedes Ruehl, the standout in this excellent ensemble) - and a place to stay, of course.
However, Jack still considers himself a terrible person, and there isn't going to be anything in his life, not even the love and security offered by Anne, that is going to change his mind so one night when there is no end of his misery in sight, he decides to commit suicide by throwing himself into the river. But as he is about to carry out that act, he is stopped by two punks who try to murder him before he can do it to himself; maybe he didn't wish to die like that, so the sight of a knight in shining armour is most welcome. Wait a sec, this is no knight, it's the schizophrenic homeless man Parry (Robin Williams) and his ramshackle band of comrades, but they do manage to get rid of the assailants and save Jack.
Now Jack must return the favour, as there is an even greater debt to repay as he discovers the next morning: Parry used to be a successful lecturer, but then he was caught up in the restaurant massacre and lost his wife, hence his manic (as if Williams would have played him any other way) and damaged personality. So there you go, redemption. But there's more to The Fisher King than simple and banal clichés that you could get in any TV movie of the week, as this is a Terry Gilliam film, and we didn't think he could come up with anything mediocre at this point (this was before The Brothers Grimm, naturally). We were right about that, because for all the reservations that this film throws up, it does move and it does make you laugh and, yes, it does offer a handful of unforgettable images of the type that Gilliam made his trademark.
Jack thinks he can save Parry, and by extension, himself, in getting him a girlfriend, as all the main characters in this need love because their isolation is sending them slightly crazy - more than slightly, in some cases. The woman Parry has his sights set upon is Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a clumsy and shy office worker who nobody pays much attention to, but in an act of goodwill which is not entirely unselfish on Jack's part, he and Anne set up the pair on a date that goes surprisingly, sweetly well in spite of nerves all round. Alas, Parry's suffering is not over as the vision of the Red Knight appears once more, heralding not only another relapse for him, but alerting Jack to unfinished business as he threatens to return to his old, hateful ways. If there's a little too much cute about this, in a look at the funny homeless/mad person manner, at least Richard LaGravenese's script acknowledges where it may be sugarcoating its message, and the faith that if you need help there will be someone to provide it after a fashion is affecting. It's all over the place emotionally, yet its variety, the optimism that dreadful events can work themselves out, are rewarding. Music by George Fenton.