In Depth Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

IN DEPTH REVIEW:  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Directed by Terry Gilliam, released January 8, 2009

I’m confused why there has been almost no publicity about Terry Gilliam’s latest movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – no tv commercials, no posters, no print ads.  The only publicity has been the buzz surrounding Heath Ledger’s death during filming, and the three marquee actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) who stepped in as homage to Heath and allowed the movie to be completed.  (Gilliam said in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune that having to work around the absence of Ledger actually may have improved the movie by “forcing me to make the film better than it would have been if he’d been around to finish it,” and has unofficially credited Ledger as co-director.)

Terry Gilliam deserves far better than this from Hollywood.  After all, the man gave us the gems of Time Bandits, Brazil, and 12 Monkeys.  Even if he had some lesser successes (The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm), isn’t a fellow who grew up in rural Minnesota and landed as the only non-Brit member of the ground breaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe allowed a little bit of latitude?  Sure, the issues that have plagued The Man Who Killed Don Quixote have been dubbed the Gilliam Curse, but The Imganinarium of Doctor Parnassus does not deserve this second hand treatment.

Like many of Gilliam’s movies, the plot is easy to summarize (Parnassus, a mystic, has been given immortality by the devil in return for the soul of his daughter unless a wager can be won by her 16th birthday, three days away) but involves so very much more.  A clap-trap, horse drawn sideshow caravan wanders the streets of London, with a gilt-clad Mercury extolling the marvels of stepping into the Imaginarium (a mylar curtain) and experiencing purity.  While the show is antiquated and shabby with an air of charlatan-ism, the experience is, indeed, magical.  Each person who steps behind the curtain is treated to – or subjected to – their own heart’s desire.

Enter a mysterious stranger, saved by the troupe and purporting to have lost his memory.  But has he really?  And even though he is charming, is he their savior or out to dupe them?  For that matter, is the aged Parnassus really a miracle worker, or a simply another washed up drunk?  Will Valentina, his daughter, be lost to the devil or the stranger, or will she be redeemed by the spurned love of Anton, the hawker?  And does anyone really deserve their heart’s desire?

And do we care?  The consensus of the group who accompanied me to the showing of Imaginarium (all Terry Gilliam fans) was lukewarm on the movie.  Most of them felt that, for the most part, the movie felt flat and that they didn’t really get involved in the story or care that much about the characters until the second half, when Tony (the stranger) first enters the Imaginarium.  One complained that there was no character development, outside of Valentina (the daughter).  Two others felt that the viewer was expected to accept too much, and the inconsistencies in the story could not be waved away with a willing suspension of disbelief.  All agreed that it was a good movie, but not a great movie, and certainly not one of Gilliam’s best, even though the spectacle was fantastic.

I don’t agree.  I thought the movie was amazing.  Maybe it’s because this last year has been a hard one for me, with a lot of personal compromises, so I’m more willing to let a story float.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and I could accept that Parnassus’ very longevity had taken him past caring about anything except the lost future of his daughter.  Was I completely captivated by the movie?  No.  But as it unfolded, something about it felt…. understandable.  Recognizable.   We go through life, giving people a chance to experience something right, and they either cannot or will not participate no matter how we try to draw them in.  Our loved ones are pulled along with us, some out of loyalty and some out of necessity, but the younger ones dream of when they will be able to head out on their own.  And we get tired, we simply tire out.  We don’t stop caring, but we stop caring about what we’re going to get out of it.  Then something happens, something totally unexpected, and we don’t know whether to trust that it is good, or ward against it being bad – not for us, but for those we love.  Ah, yes, I could understand all that, and I felt that this is what the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was giving us.  Subtle?  Perhaps.  Flat?  Maybe.  But something I could identify with, and I think why I was so drawn to the movie.

Everything else is just trappings – and if there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that Terry Gilliam knows how to give a movie-goer some marvelous trappings.  He hasn’t lost his edge in giving us ordinary images in delightfully extraordinary ways.  The Imaginarium itself allows Gilliam to cross into the fantastic with his otherworldly interpretations of “heart’s desire” – a materialistic urban matron crosses over to a river of high heeled shoes and Faberge eggs, a drunken lout finds refuge from a quagmire of empty bottles in a honky tonk bar oasis, to disastrous results.  But it’s not just the Imaginarium that allows Gilliam’s creative genius full rein, everything is fair game – the landscapes are sparse and desolate when Parnassus is lost and defeated, the homing grounds for the caravan is an urban wasteland.  The traveling caravan itself is tattered and worn, a reflection of past glory and sumptuousness spoiled and faded.  It’s glorious.

The acting is first rate, too, given that there is not a lot of nuance needed for these characters.  Christopher Plummer’s Parnassus is defeated and often drunk, only rising to the occasion when there is no way around it; his performance keeps us from feeling sorry for Parnassus, or from reviling him.  Vern Troyer is a bit shrill as Parnassus’ lifelong companion, but does well in being his moral conscience.  Lily Cole is an excellent doe-eyed, nubile young thing, with a cynical spark that keeps her from being no more than a pawn, and Andrew Garfield has just enough earnestness to keep Anton from being a youthful annoyance.  But Tom Waits – Tom Waits is absolutely picture perfect as the devil, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, yet seems to be somewhat decent when all is said and done.

And what of Heath Ledger?  It is a credit to him that the character of Tony Liar, the mysterious stranger, is so confusing.  Without making himself a star vehicle, Ledger is able to easily convince us that Tony is a victim of circumstance while still keeping the door open that he may be an unscrupulous cad.  It is his performance that keeps us off balance, without a sense of the floor tilting beneath our feet.  His ability to manipulate is obvious but the motivations for why he uses that ability is exactly what makes him mysterious – we have a very hard time deciding whether he is genuine or truly devious.  And his dopplegangers (Depp, Law, Farrell) -who show up in each of Tony’s travels into the Imaginarium – mirror the slightly off kilter world that is our heart’s desire.  Sublime.

So I’m going to give this movie an A-.  I realize that others may not have as high of a regard for this movie, and their reasons sound legitimate.  But I’m going to go with my gut reaction, because, well, that’s what I do.  Go to it…. It’s a good movie, and you just might find it great.

~ by arcticwren on January 11, 2010.

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