Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

At its heart THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS beats with the essence of what makes Terry Gilliam stand out from his peers: a fierce, uncompromising visual palette, stand-out acting performances, and a solid foundation in mythic storytelling.  And when left alone to pursue his distinctive vision, you get images that feel ripped directly from that tiny place in your brain reserved for the imagination of your youth.  It's what makes THE CRIMSON PERMANENT ASSURANCE, the short film that precedes the "proper" film within MONTY PYTHON'S MEANING OF LIFE one of the most indelible 15 minutes put to film.  It's what makes the best moments of TIME BANDITS and, to a lesser extent THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN stand out in our minds, capturing those afternoon daydreams as I sat on a large rock next to the house, playing pirates and cops and robbers in a universe that was wider than the borders of my yard.

But like MUNCHAUSEN, which in terms of overall tone seems the closest relative to PARNASSUS, the film struggles but ultimately fails as a complete story. Of course by now the production disasters that plague Terry Gilliam on so many of his pictures are near mythic proportions.  Natural disasters and lack of funding are par for the course on a Gilliam production, and one of the biggest (but not the biggest, obviously) obstacles in the movie is how small it seems in relation to the subject matter.  PARNASSUS never seems like an open world: everything is cramped and narrow; even when we're in the streets of modern London there's something artificial and askew when it comes to the scale of the environment.  MUNCHAUSEN, for all its issue seems gigantic in relation to PARANASSUS.  I fully realize this has more to do with funding than anything else, but even smaller pictures like TIDELAND felt larger on screen.  Now this could also have been a stylistic choice on Gilliam's part, but watching it on the screen I couldn't help but feel compressed.

No review of PARNASSUS would be complete  without mentioning the tragic death of Heath Ledger, and it effect on the film.  His presence, and subsequent absence, leave a huge watermark on PARNASSUS that never manages to fade into the background.  The idea to have his unfinished scenes performed by a trio of great actors - Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell - is inspired in theory but in execution damages things beyond repair, particularly Farrell's performance.  It's fine on its own, but having to carry a significant portion of the film - including the climax - it acts as a reminder of how things could have been had Ledger lived to complete Gilliam's vision.

Normally I wouldn't lead off with my criticisms of a film, and it would be a lie if I said I didn't find a lot to like in PARNASSUS.  As usual, Gilliam is inspired in his casting choices, particularly in his pairing of Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits in the lead roles.  I'd be hard pressed to think of a bad Christopher Plummer performance, but here he's stretched into playing someone who's lived for hundreds of years, and damn if he doesn't make you feel every single year.  Tom Waits can only really play himself but, that being said, I can't believe it took so long for someone to cast him as the Devil, or Mr. Nick as he's called here.  One of the delights of PARNASSUS is watching the purposefully nonsensical way continuously meddles in the affairs of the Doctor Parnassus.   Even with victory seemingly his, Mr. Nick can't help but throw it all away on one more bet, one small wager, even one he knows he'll ultimately lose.  There's an entire other story here about the reason why Mr. Nick is so infatuated with Parnassus, and the way Gilliam refuses to provide the reasons (their initial meeting in the monk's temple provides no answers, merely the opening exchange) is both typical of his storytelling technique (admittedly sloppy, but I think sometimes purposely so) and a welcome change from the exposition that would have mandatory in another film.

Even when I don't like a Terry Gilliam film (BROTHERS GRIMM, TIDELAND), there's always something that leaves me breathlessly waiting for the next film.  THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is better than both those films; despite the issues there's enough wit, style, and good performances on display that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend at least one viewing.  And it ultimately makes me even more excited to see how he manages to re-tool and re-launch THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, which sounds like his personal white whale and another unique vision perfectly in place with the rest of his filmography.


  1. I think Don Quixote is going to be amazing. Gilliam never fails to enlighten and make us use our minds and imaginations.

  2. I'm 100% with you on that. Like I said, even in his works I don't care for, there's always something brilliant, something keeps me coming back. And the latest casting news of Robert Duvall is fantastic!

  3. "Now this could also have been a stylistic choice on Gilliam's part, but watching it on the screen I couldn't help but feel compressed."

    Really? You know, I think this is done on purpose but I felt that the film really opens up, esp. spatially whenever anyone goes into the Imaginarium/alt. reality/otherworldly dimension. It is here that Gilliam can go hog-wild stylitically and opens things up a la BARON MUNCHAUSEN.