The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Dir: Terry Gilliam

Rating: 1.5/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

122 Minutes

Terry Gilliam’s filmography is filled with as-yet-unrealized projects, budget busts and studio battles; despite his successes and characteristic style, his failures are the essential evidence of his vision. Many believed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was doomed to the same fate as his Don Quixote movie, which made it to the screen only as the subject of Lost in La Mancha, a documentary chronicling the production’s descent into chaos. While Gilliam’s recent films have not received the critical praise of his past work, thanks in part to the success of Lost in La Mancha the director has not been written off as having lost it, but rather is hailed as a visionary who simply can’t translate his genius into a coherent movie.

Imaginarium is a bad concoction of reheated Gilliam left-overs and stale Faustian mumbo-jumbo. The titular doctor is a swami-showman with a fondness for booze (Christopher Plummer), 1,000 years old and looking it. He presides over a shabby circus troupe: 15-year old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), honest leading man Anton (Andrew Garfield) and dyspeptic dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer). The film gets off to good start. An old-fashioned traveling theatre, horse-drawn and rickety, rolls through modern London streets. It then opens up to reveal a Victorian-style theatre and a magic mirror, through which members of the audience are invited to pass and experience the world of their wildest imagination.

But Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. A confirmed gambler, a thousand years ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in which he won immortality. Centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with Mr. Nick, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his daughter reached her 16th birthday, she would become Mr. Nick’s property. The time has come to pay, and in a race against time, Dr. Parnassus must fight to save his daughter and undo the mistakes of his past. Dr. Parnassus then engages the devil in one last wager – the first to five souls: Dr. Parnassus wants to claim souls for glorious, imaginative freedom, and Mr. Nick wants to chain them to banality and dullness.

Imaginarium just goes on and on and on, the players knocking around unproductively trying to stop the devil from hauling Lily into hell on her 16th birthday, The troupe then finds a young man (Heath Ledger) hanging from a London bridge. Tony, an enigmatic, charming, worryingly insincere character has, apparently, lost his memory. Perhaps he’s an attempted suicide. Or maybe he’s been left dangling by criminals. Either way, Tony joins the company and suggests to Dr Parnassus that he modernize the show to attract a richer, hipper audience to make more money.

As everyone now knows, Ledger died halfway through shooting and his role was re-invented as a series of personae played by a trio of movie stars (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell). Tony passes through the mirror and morphs into Depp, then, Ledger is back again for more irritating burlesque. Then, he passes through again and morphs into Law. Then a bit more Ledger. Then a whole lot of Farrell. Parnassus then descends into curdled silliness and it soon becomes apparent that Ledger’s untimely death may very well generate the only interest in the film.

Given the diabolical screenplay which gradually degenerates into rambling self-indulgence, Imaginarium’s faults clearly predate Ledger’s demise. It’s so chaotic that it makes previous Gilliam fiascos look tight and organized. This messy spectacle might or might not have been a little better had Ledger been in every intended scene, but few films are so disjointed that you can just insert other actors when your leading man passes away. Marred by shoddy special effects and half-assed conceits, Imaginarium feels like a hokey comic fantasia desperately trying to find its rhythm. During one fantasy sequence, a chorus-line of transvestite policemen in fishnet stockings embarks on a Monty Python-style production number. It looks more like a terrible old revue sketch born out of Gilliam’s desperation. Like the entire film, it’s not smart enough nor silly or grotesque enough to be even remotely entertaining.

The characters are badly-written, soulless caricatures who don’t develop, jerking suddenly from one attitude to another. And, as is too often in Gilliam’s movies, the director’s attention seems to have been devoted entirely to visual effects, while the actors seem to have received no guidance at all. The performances are awful, including Ledger’s. He looks just as clueless and confused as in The Brothers Grimm and he never gets a handle on his character, his accent veering from one continent to another. Beyond giving bad imitations of Ledger, the three stars who come in to help out don’t seem to know what they’re doing either.

The director claims Imaginarium is like his version of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander or Federico Fellini’s Amarcord: “Those directors reached a point in their lives where they said, ‘OK, let’s just wallow in the things we enjoy.’ So this is my wallow. I don’t have to keep proving new things and exploring all areas. This is what I am. This is what I do.” Be that as it may, in the case of the enormously awful Imaginarium, wallowing imagination and doing the things one enjoys, can sometimes be a terrible thing. If indeed Gilliam’s imagination knows no boundaries; it might be good if he found some next time. The worst that can be said of Imaginarium is that it’s tiresome. It will likely be received over-kindly by fan boys and insiders who know the director and respect his intentions and vision, but will leave the rest confused, disappointed and a bit irked.

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