The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (review)

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Burn, Gilliam, Burn

Oh, Terry Gilliam. We love you because your films are glorious messes, crazy quilts of the deepest fears of our psyches and the most secret hopes of our hearts and the little bit of Monty Python anarchy that we might all illicitly want to embrace. You can’t be boxed up with other filmmakers, you won’t be bound by storytelling conventions, and not even the cold heartlessness of fate can stop you from committing cinema.

Though maybe this time it should have.
It’s fine, really, that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus defies any attempts to boil it down into something “reasonable.” It’s fine to say it’s a tale about a man, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer: 9, Up), who sold his soul to the Devil lo these many years ago in exchange for immortality but has reconsidered the deal, and renegotiates with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits: Domino, Coffee and Cigarettes) for a chance to win his soul back… and it’s fine to say that such a simple description of the plot, such as it is, can in no way capture the freewheeling lunacy of this film, for which plot is nothing more than a thin wire hanger upon which to dangle a journey into our collective subconscious.

I think what’s not so fine with this instance of Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) gamboling freely through the public subconscious is that it just doesn’t work, this time, on any level other than a meta one. For me, the most intriguing aspect of the film is how he managed to cobble something together — after the death of one of your stars, Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, I’m Not There), in the middle of production, with not all of his bits already shot — that isn’t actually a complete and utter disaster, only a partial one. Of course, he had the benefit of working in a genre — the surrealistic mindfuck fantasy — that lends itself to “simply” recasting other actors to play the same role. But still… there’s something about how it all hangs together — or, in fact, doesn’t — in the finished product that suggests to me that what we ended up with on the screen isn’t quite what Gilliam had in mind from the beginning.

See, Doctor Parnassus’ schtick is this: He is the proprietor of a traveling show that sets up in suburban big-box store parking lots or outside late-night downtown clubs and appears to offer, at first glance, something like a gypsy puppet theater, maybe; something twee and weird and quaint and likely charming and probably well worth five pounds or whatever for a good laugh. What he actually offers, though, is a chance to walk through his magic mirror and explore the mess in one’s own head, actually stroll around through one’s neuroses and desires, as represented by what are basically CGI versions of those collage cartoons Gilliam used to create for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and featuring outre, outsized representations of the things that haunt us. (One man sees a “12x12x12 step program” as an enormous flight of seemingly insurmountable stairs.)

Parnassus has multiple assistants in this venture: his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); Anton (Andrew Garfield: Lions for Lambs, Boy A), who is in love with Valentina, of course; and Percy (Verne Troyer: The Love Guru, Austin Powers in Goldmember), who’s sort of Parnassus’ lieutenant. And then all of a sudden Ledger’s Tony is along for the ride, someone the little gang rescued from a suicide attempt — Ledger’s first appearance onscreen here is a tarot-card-esque hanged man, which is rather disturbing in ways that Gilliam could not have intended when he shot it, but which he had to be aware of when he included the shot in the finished film. We never learn much about Tony, but it’s hard to imagine that Gilliam originally cast so prominent a name actor for what is, here, little more than a supporting role.

So Tony ends up figuring in the waking, through-the-looking-glass fantasies of three different customers, who see him as they wish to see him in their subconscious: as in fact not Heath Ledger at all, but as Johnny Depp (Public Enemies, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes, The Holiday), and Colin Farrell (Pride and Glory, In Bruges), who may or may not be playing “themselves,” as famous faces, in the imaginations of those who see them. Which is indeed a clever way to get around not having Ledger to shoot… except it’s nothing but cunning. It doesn’t further what appear to be Gilliam’s major concerns here — this is a world in which mystical monks tell “a story that sustains the universe” but where the power of imagination seems to be waning, to what I would have expected to be a detrimental effect. Any concern beyond getting something that looks like a finished film, thematic cohesiveness be damned, looks to have been forgotten.

It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong here, that someday Imaginarium will be considered the Dante’s Inferno of the early 21st century, the great explication of the mindset of the time. (There’s not many filmmakers I’d entertain such a notion about, but Gilliam is one of them.) Perhaps I shouldn’t be annoyed when Parnassus says to another character — though he’s actually telling the audience — “Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately.” And perhaps another bit about how “you can’t stop stories being told” is merely an expression of Gilliam’s own irrepressible urge to get *this* story out of his head and onto the screen, no matter what obstacles he had to overcome.

I wish it all worked on its own merit, though, and felt less like an academic exercise and more like, you know, a movie.

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Sat, Jan 09, 2010 10:09pm

I’ve seen several reviewers refer to Tony’s “suicide attempt,” but in the film, the Russians say outright that they’d failed to kill him once, but wouldn’t fail again. Isn’t it clear that the Russians hung him the first time? If he was committing suicide, why would he have swallowed the pipe (which prevented him from dying while hung)?