THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS
A (Solo) Review by L.L. Soares
(Carnival music fills the air as we see a stage with painted actors dancing upon it. LL SOARES watches from the audience)
LS: Well, I thought Michael Arruda would be joining me for this one. Unfortunately, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS continues to get a slow, limited release around the country, and it’s not playing where he is. So I guess I have to do this one solo.
The big hubbub about this movie is that it was the last film Heath Ledger was working on when he died. In fact, the movie was fraught with problems. After Heath died, the film’s producer died as well, and then director Terry Gilliam was hit by a car and it broke his back (luckily, he’s in recovery). As Gilliam has pointed out, it’s a miracle this movie ever got made.
But is it any good?
Well, to be honest, this movie works much better than I expected. You see, because Ledger died before he’d finished filming, Gilliam had to resort to some DR. WHO-ish type tricks to fill in the gaps. Part of this movie takes place in the real world (and Ledger’s scenes for that were pretty much completed), the other half takes place in a fantasy world of the imagination. There, Ledger’s character transforms into other actors, namely Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. I had no idea how this would work, but in its own dream-logic way, the concept works out fine. And there’s enough footage of Ledger so that the transition seems fairly seamless. In fact, if you didn’t know the problematic history of the film, there’s a good chance you’d have no idea that anything was wrong at all. Which is pretty amazing.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS tells the story of a one-thousand year old man named, not surprisingly, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). He’s old and tired, and yet he continues to perform in a rag-tag show along with his daughter Valentina (Lilly Cole) who he calls Scruffy, Anton (Andrew Garfield) a likeable bloke who performs as the god of messengers, Mercury, while onstage, and Percy (Verne Troyer), a wise-cracking dwarf who is also the voice of reason in this little outfit. They travel about in a gigantic contraption (as tall as a three-story building) on wheels, pulled by horses, which opens up into a makeshift stage when they stop somewhere.
As Parnassus tells us, he started out as a monk in a secluded monastery, believing that he and his fellow monks had to tell “the story of life” non-stop (they do it in shifts), or else the world will come to an end. One day, they get a visitor in the form of Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), who is actually the devil. He shows Parnassus how meaningless his existence is, by preventing the monks from telling their story, and yet the world does not end. (Actually Parnassus deduces that even if they stop telling the story, someone, somewhere else is telling it, which is why the world doesn’t end). Without a reason to stay in the monastery, Parnassus leaves to travel the world.
The devil has made Parnassus immortal, but in doing so, he’s also demanded the man accept various wagers (the devil loves to gamble). The most recent bet involves which man (Parnassus or Mr. Nick) can acquire five human souls the quickest. The prize is Paranassus’s daughter, Valentina, who is about to celebrate her sixteenth birthday. Needless to say, Paranssus is desperate to win the bet and prevent his daughter from being whisked away to hell.
Along the way, the band of actors comes across someone hanging from a bridge. They cut him down and save his life. This is Tony (Heath Ledger), a mystery man who has suffered amnesia (or claims to have). He joins the troupe and eventually becomes involved with the wager to save Valentina.
The stage itself is also a kind of machine. Upon the stage is a magic mirror. If someone goes into it, they enter a dream world created by their imagination (and Dr. Parnassus’s). This is where people go to “donate” their souls to Parnassus (a process that seems to be pretty harmless). But the devil also sets up shop there, intent on stealing souls away for good.
That’s the plot in a nutshell. Does Parnassus save his daughter from the devil’s clutches? Who exactly is Tony? And does Valentina choose Tony or Anton as her lover? All of these questions are answered in the movie. And we have some fun along the way.
I should probably point out here that I am a big fan of Terry Gilliam’s films. He started out as the animator for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and went on to direct such films as TIME BANDITS, BRAZIL, THE FISHER KING, TWELVE MONKEYS, and his previous film, the underappreciated TIDELAND. All of his films are punctuated by themes of magic and redemption, with oversized, awe-inspiring visuals (he did start out as an animator, after all), and often convoluted scripts. While almost always a feast for the eyes, his movies can sometimes be a bit confusing story-wise. That said, DR. PARNASSUS is fairly easy to follow for the most part, but there are some aspects that will have you scratching your head. But that makes perfect sense in a movie about the magic of imagination.
I enjoyed DR. PARNASSUS and thought Gilliam did a fine job putting this one together. At one point during filming, after Ledger had died, it looked like the movie might never get finished. I’m glad it did, since it’s an inspired bit of cinema magic.
The acting, first off, is impeccable. Plummer is terrific as a world-weary immortal. Lilly Cole is very pretty and quite good as Valentina (she reminded me of a young Miranda Richardson). Ledger is at the top of his game as Tony (it’s nowhere near as powerful as his portrayal of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, but you can tell this is an actor who has confidence and charisma to spare). Verne Troyer (who everyone knows primarily as “Mini Me” from the AUSTIN POWERS movies) actually gets a meaty part as Percy (it’s nice to see him play a more dramatic role for a change). And Garfield rounds out the troupe (and the love triangle with Valentina) nicely.
As for Tom Waits, he continues to show that he’s one of the rare musicians who can act. His Mr. Nick is funny, tragic and sometimes malevolent. As someone who really loves his music, I always look forward to seeing him onscreen as well. And the other actors filling in for Ledger do a good job of filling the gaps without looking like they’re filling the gaps.
The script, for the most part, is pretty good. And the visuals are just terrific (something Gilliam always excels at). Some of the scenes in the Imaginarium even look like his old animation from the Python days, which I rather enjoyed, seeing some old school animation along with the more modern CGI effects.
I thought DOCTOR PARNASSUS was a nice note for Ledger to end on (the film is dedicated to him). And while I don’t think it’s Gilliam’s best movie, I do think it’s a fine film and worth seeing on the big screen (where his bigger-than-life visuals really shine).
Another magical film from a magical director.
And with that, I bid you good night!
(LS disappears in a rain of sparks)
© Copyright 2010 by L.L. Soares