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Josh Reviews The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus!

January 13th, 2010
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When unsuspecting passers-by step through the magic mirror in Doctor Parnassus’ traveling imaginarium, they find themselves transported into a world in which their innermost thoughts and desires are brought to life.  Watching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I feel as though I have been treated to a similar experience: a trip inside the very mind of writer/director Terry Gilliam.

It’s pretty astonishing to me that Terry Gilliam has only directed seven films since Brazil back in 1985, and only thirteen feature films in his entire career.   (I’m including in that count Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he co-directed, and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, in which he directed the opening short film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance.)  Mr. Gilliam has had an extraordinary string of bad luck, over the years, in his attempts to make the movies he sets his heart on making (click here for more information on his doomed effort, at the start of the decade, to bring to life his film version of Don Quixote, which was to star Johnny Depp), which in part accounts for the sparcity of his films.

Therefore, any new Terry Gilliam movie should be a source of much rejoicing.  And yet, I much confess that I have not actually seen the three films that Mr. Gilliam has directed since Twelve Monkeys in 1995: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Tideland (2005), and The Brothers Grimm (also released in 2005).  I’m not sure why, exactly.  Something about those three films just didn’t appeal to me.  But ever since first reading about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus a few years back, I was excited and intrigued to get a gander at what Mr. Gilliam was putting together.

As in many of Mr. Gilliam’s films, Parnassus has a twisty plot that would be extraordinarily difficult for me to really explain to you, nor am I all that sure that I should even try.  I will tell you that Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has apparently been engaged in a thousand-year duel with the devil (Tom Waits) over whether mankind’s imaginations or our more prurient instincts represent the dominant force in our nature.  Their latest wager involves the fate of Parnassus’ young daughter Valentina (Lily Cole).  Hard times have befallen the aged Parnassus and his small troupe, which includes the wise Percy (Verne Troyer) and the young Anton (Andrew Garfield).  It seems that, in our modern world, Doctor Parnassus’ traveling imaginarium doesn’t attract anyone’s attention or interest any longer.  But things change when Lily rescues an enigmatic and amnesiac young man named Tony (Heath Ledger) from an attempted suicide.  Will Tony help Doctor Parnassus, or wind up destroying him?

Heh.  That’s certainly a bizarre synopsis, and trust me that there is a whole heck of a lot more than that going on in this film.  But you’re best off going in not knowing anything more — just sit back and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride it is.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus feels like Terry Gilliam unchained, and the CGI effects — while dodgy in places (this isn’t Avatar) — enable Mr. Gilliam and his team to bring to life all of the bizarre, zany ideas in Gilliam’s imagination.  Anyone who has ever seen any of the animation that he did for Monty Python has an idea of the types of crazy imagery that seem to populate Mr. Gilliam’s internal imaginarium, and it was a great delight seeing those visions brought to large, colorful life in a way I never had before.

As for the story around which that amazing imagery has been wrapped, well, let’s just say that narrative coherency has never been one of Terry Gilliam’s strong suits.  There is a whole heck of a lot of weirdness in the film that is never really explained, and the degree to which that bothers you will affect your ultimate enjoyment of the film.  Usually that sort of thing bugs the heck out of me, but there was so much greatness on display here that, surprisingly, I didn’t find that I really minded.  There is enough information given that the story hangs together.  Sort of.

The film succeeds, in my mind, because of the energy and enthusiasm that the ensemble of actors bring to the proceedings.  Christopher Plummer never ceases to astound me, and he imbues a great seriousness and tragic depth to the titular Doctor Parnassus.  Lily Cole has a unique beauty, and she brings an intriguing otherworldliness to the young Valentina.  It’s no wonder all the men in the film seem to be besotted by her.  Andrew Garfield does a nice job as Valentina’s friend, Anton, who is clearly in love with her.  This could be a tough role — he is called upon to create a sympathetic character who is also a good deal of trouble, and Mr. Garfield finds that balance well.  Verne Troyer is always fun, though I would really love to see him in a film that doesn’t make jokes about his height.  (There’s nothing in this film that comes anywhere near the level of Austin Powers offensiveness, but still, the couple jokes at his expense were wildly unnecessary, in my opinion.)  I did appreciate that Troyer’s character, Percy, seems to be the most honest and loyal character in the piece.  Tom Waits was an inspired choice to play the devil, and he absolutely owns the film every moment he is on screen.  A phenomenally wonderful cinematic creation.

Which brings me to Heath Ledger, in his final role.  It is tough to watch this film without having the experience colored by his untimely death, and it is tough to shake that context when considering his performance.  I can say that I was a bit surprised by the character that Mr. Ledger created here, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  If his too-short career demonstrated anything, it’s that Mr. Ledger was able to be something of a chameleon, creating entirely new and different characters with each role that he took.  His Tony is charismatic but dangerous, and Mr. Ledger is a joy to watch perform.

But I must say that, of all the bizarre characters in the film, Ledger’s Tony was the one who I never really got a handle on.  As a key example, while I can understand Tony’s desire to hide away from his former life (once we discover its details), I never really understood the ease with he throws himself into a position as a member of Parnassus’ troupe.  (In one scene he is scared and befuddled by Parnassus’ weird gang, and in the next, Tony is in costume and prancing around wildly, in an attempt to draw passers-by to Parnassus’ show.)  I am unsure how much of this confusion is due to a flaw in the storytelling, and how much of it is due to the way that Mr Gilliam and his team had to piece the unfinished film together around what had been shot prior to Mr. Ledger’s passing.

But I will say that my favorite parts of the film were the sequences inside the imaginarium in which Mr. Ledger’s role was temporarily played by three different actors: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.  (This creative solution to Mr. Ledger’s unfinished performance was what enabled Mr. Gilliam to complete the film.)  The transitions between these different actors is creative and very smooth, and all three really knock their all-too-brief appearances out of the park.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is perplexing, weird, and wonderful.  It’s not for everyone, but it is without question one of the more unique films to be released this year.  If you’re a Terry Gilliam fan then seeing this is a no-brainer.  Even if you’re not, I hope that movie-goers interested in seeing Heath ledger’s final performance will give this a try.  It might not be a wholly-satisfying movie-going experience, but it will certainly give you a whole heck of a lot to think about and to talk about.

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