As much as I admire the style and finesse Terry Gilliam brings in his filmmaking, I find that his final product in direction is more or less a hit or a miss. I loved “12 Monkeys” and “the Fisher King” wasn’t too shabby as I can remember. I was however real disappointed with “The Brothers Grimm” that I avoided “Tideland”. Well, I gave Gilliam’s latest movie a shot since the reception is somewhat of a mixed bag and a lot of people have indeed asked me to take a look at this film. I am going into this film with no expectations and I am quite fond of films that are very different and filled with allegories for the esoteric few.
An immortal man who had several run-ins with the devil called “Nick” (played by Tom Waits), Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is stuck with a traveling troupe that is made up of his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), a sleight of hand expert named Anton (Andrew Garfield) and his close confidant Percy (Verne Troyer, Austin Powers 2). They roll across London in an old wagon pulled by horses as they try to entice the locals to pass through a mirror that allows one to access the world of pure imagination and desires.
Business isn’t exactly booming, but Parnassus finds inspiration when the troupe comes a suicidal man with amnesia named Tony Shepherd (Heath Ledger) who joins them in their journey and becomes their most valuable member. Now “Mr. Nick” returns to collect on some past debts, Parnassus must try to save his daughter as Tony experiences some new sensations on the other side of the mirror; his appearance becomes altered (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell play the “imaginary” Tony) as he tries to escape his past mistakes in the real world…
We all know that Gilliam’s storytelling style can get cryptic, muddy and sometimes alienating so this comes as no surprise. To appreciate the “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” one has to be a little familiar with the way he lays out his vision. I think this is an attempt to express that child-like interpretation that some of us hold inside. Gilliam knows that the world of fantasy gives us little to no limits in visionary ambition. So prepare to have your senses overloaded as the director does give his audience a visually stunning film that is intended to be as such.
The style of the visuals comes as something rather quirky and exudes that “funhouse” atmosphere that may either alienate or impress the viewer. There are some really nice scenes in “Dr. Parnassus” from a visual standpoint as we see this “imaginarium” that may or may not be a taste of your own personal interpretation of heaven as we see the people being faced by choices that can alter their reality. The film is rich in symbolism so make sure you pay attention. The pipe that Tony uses to brace his windpipe on the noose represents his character, the shoes, the mucky pond that has photos of Princess Di, James Dean and one other I cannot recall; and the babushka represent man’s feeble desires. See the “Imaginarium” as a part of one’s consciousness; as each duality is represented as a part of creation itself. The film also has a story of the monks that practiced telling the story of this Earth as it sustains it; stop talking and the world may implode. The mirror represents the reflection of one‘s soul. Every Love and happiness has a pain, every demon has to come out of a dark pit, every good has a bad, and even escape has a price that may prove to be too high a price.
The characters are quirky and bizarre in many ways. You do feel that they feel that the magic has been lost in this modern world which is why they seem so out of place. Magic must evolve with the people who can believe in them. Heath Ledger’s performance was a little uneven but I thought it was still good. Johnny Depp is charismatic as always while Jude Law and Colin Farrell made for convincing “imaginary” Tony’s. Lily Cole is damn too pretty as her presence threatens to eat up the screen but she does manage to work the best in her role. Christopher Plummer has that weird, eccentric look about him and I enjoyed his character of an eccentric immortal.
I guess I cannot really fault the direction for trying to be as magical as it can be yet for some reason the magic gets a little fuzzy in the process that it never really went the way it should have. But isn’t magic something to be bought into anyway? I guess if the film had a flaw, it may have become too quirky for its own good and never lets the emotions of each scene be absorbed by the viewer. The screenplay went from point one to point two in a hurry and then begins point three only to downplay it in favor for point four. I know it can be alienating but such is Gilliam’s work; this I think is part of his
creative flair. Gilliam does drive his storytelling to the areas of a parable, and he is relentless in pursuing this style. It may occasionally fail to impress and rather alienate but at least Gilliam sticks to what he likes.
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” isn’t one of Gilliam’s best films but it is better than I thought it would be. It is also a good “warm up” for his next movie “Don Quixote”. Please keep in mind that Ledger never finished this film, but thank goodness the film made it work. It is all after all in one’s imagination…where even death isn’t permanent.
Recommended Timidly, Rental First is Advisable [3 ½ Stars]
HYPE LEVEL: The Movie was released in as a limited run and while the Hype was there it didn't exactly raise my expectations too much. The film does fulfill its Hype to the Terry Gilliam fan but it does also disappoint those who expected much of Ledger's last movie that the film's publicists tried to capitalize on.