TERRY GILLIAM used to be a cartoonist, best known for the zany animations he cooked up for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on television. After leaving the British comedy troupe, he became a feature filmmaker, switching to live performers but keeping his cartoonish approach. Gilliam pictures like "Time Bandits" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" could be called live-action animations, putting real people in settings and situations as outlandish as any pen-and-ink creation could offer.What makes Mr. Gilliam different from most movie cartoonists, however, is his outspoken interest in social issues. His best film, "Brazil," is a tragicomic outcry against tendencies of modern culture that Gilliam thinks are leading to disaster. "The Fisher King," carries this tendency further, filling the screen with the most wretched members of an overstressed modern city. One main character, played by Jeff Bridges, is a radio talk-show host who's on the skids after one of his monologues drove a listener to murder and suicide. The other hero, played by Robin Williams, is a sidewalk schizophrenic whose voices are telling him to steal a trophy (he thinks it's the Holy Grail) from the home of a billionaire he's never met. The women of the story include a jaded video-store proprietor (Mercedes Ruehl) and a shy accountant (Amanda Plummer). Gilliam uses these people to illustrat e his conception of the best and worst in human beings. They're full of everyday callousness, yet they're also capable of amazing kindness - at least, when there's no way to avoid it. "The Fisher King" has moments of great visual energy and imagination, especially in the first half-hour or so. Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese seem to be motivated by genuine social and political concern, moreover, when they punctuate the action with searing views of poverty and homelessness - insisting that movies don't have to be escapist havens. Gilliam's cartoonish approach goes sour after a while, though, and his manic style tends to trivialize and vulgarize the movie's subject. While he calls our attention to awful conditions, he doesn't suggest solutions or try to identify causes of the problems. And what can he be thinking of when he introduces a gay character whose friends have all died of AIDS, then makes the man into a shrieking, ugly stereotype? It's interesting that "The Fisher King" has arrived shortly after "Life Stinks," the Mel Brooks farce about a rich man living in a slum to win a bet. More than one cinema-humorist is sincerely troubled by today's crises of homelessness and hunger, and wants to respond in a constructive way through comedy. There's no reason why laughter can't be an effective weapon in the struggle for a better society. "The Fisher King" is more ambitious than "Life Stinks" but less consistent, less compassionate, and even less funny. At one point in the story, when the Bridges character is trying to get back into show business, the film pokes fun at a fictitious TV sitcom that aims to give an "upbeat" view of homelessness. This could have been a telling moment in Gilliam's agenda of social commentary. But by now "The Fisher King" itself has turned out to be just as insensitive as the TV program it attacks - reminding u s that urban misery exists, then pretending it wouldn't matter if we just had Robin Williams around to make us chuckle through our pain. Gilliam is a bold and talented artist. At this stage of his career, though, he needs a certain kind of screenplay - one that manages to be cartoonish and intelligent at the same time - to give his forceful style something meaningful to work on.
Rated * for profanity and violence.