THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS Review – TIFF ’09

     September 10, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie image - slice.jpg

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” gained immediate notoriety upon Heath Ledger’s untimely death. Suddenly, the film was no longer a production followed only by Terry Gilliam’s loyal fans. It became the focus of many curious eyes, all wondering if Ledger’s film could ever come to fruition when he wasn’t able to complete it. While it’s easy to wonder what the film could have been without Ledger’s passing and the re-writes and cinematic magic required to complete it, it’s just as easy to appreciate what Gilliam made of it. Click through to jump into the Imaginarium…

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie image (4).jpg“Imaginarium” is the tale of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his life-long battle of wits with the devil. Long ago, Parnassus had won immortality from the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), birthing an antagonistic and battling life of bets. Many years later, against the busied streets of modern-day London, he runs a traveling side-show with the help of his life-long friend Percy (Verne Troyer), who is eager to help his old friend, his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who is desperate for a modern, stationary life, and a young man named Anton (Andrew Garfield), who is desperately in love with Valentina.

They struggle to make enough money to survive, but Parnassus has greater worries – years after his first win, he made another deal with the devil, one that will cost him his daughter on her 16th birthday. However, never one to shy away from human desperation, the devil presents Parnassus with a new offer. If the doctor can seduce 5 souls first, Valentina will be safe. The weary man takes the bet, but Parnassus’ old-world imagination does not draw in the crowds, and winning seems like a dream. That is, until they save a man dressed in a white suit, hanging from a bridge. Tony (Ledger) has a gift for enticement and helps the performers, but he may not be the knight in a white suit like he first appears.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie image Heath Ledger.jpgIts quite easy to notice the parallels between Parnassus and Gilliam himself – two men with a unique and imaginative vision of life, who continually struggle in a rather indifferent world. They are almost out of their element – enamored with imagination in a world that doesn’t quite see their vision. They revel in the creativity of the mind, and rue those that don’t understand its power. Yet both soldier on, hoping that their message will stick.

And to an extent it does. “Imaginarium” is not a carefully polished story, but it is unique, and does pull from the whole of Gilliam’s creative life – from a wonderful throwback to “Monty Python”, to the creative sense of adventure in “Time Bandits”, to a slice of eerie darkness from films like “Tideland”. It’s a visual wonderland – flying skies of jellyfish, a world of shoes, a towering land of ladders. Unfortunately, each of these scenes is gone all too quickly – a fleeting moment of a larger whole, making it easy to wish that Parnassus would just hide inside his imagination, rather than flitting about in the boring modern-day world. Rainy London streets and big box home improvement stores are no match for the fictional worlds Gilliam creates.

Likewise, some actors are no match for their counterparts. Without a doubt, Tom Waits reigns as Mr. Nick, balancing perfectly the demands of devilishness and cocky charm. Likewise, Plummer and Ledger are smooth in their roles, able to move through Gilliam’s unique universe as if it were real, everyday life. The rest, well, they seem to evoke a wide range of responses in their audience. When the film hit Cannes, one person’s solid performer was another’s big disappointment. Why? This is most likely due to the contrast between the epic, seasoned talent and unestablished co-stars. While each of the remaining three – Troyer, Cole, and Garfield – are perfectly adequate in their roles, and sometimes charming (especially Garfield), they are no match for Waits, Plummer, and Ledger.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie image (1).jpgAnd of course, there are three more to consider — the final trio of Ledger’s replacements and friends – Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp. Each does a fine job embodying Ledger in the Imaginarium, each seeming to take on a slice of Tony’s personality, from the cocky charisma of a successful businessman, to a man overwhelmed with a wild and desperate escape from tough thugs. In some ways, it’s a blessing to see Tony show up as these different men who might be dressed similarly, but change from imaginary world to imaginary world. The trio represent hidden aspects of Tony, and a different face to reveal them is quite apt.

Yet while I wish I could say that Parnassus’ Imaginarium would be the twist where Gilliam’s whimsy goes mainstream, this film will most likely remain a visual wonderland for Gilliam enthusiasts. It’s a fresh story with some down-right beautiful visuals, but just as Parnassus struggles to unleash his imagination on a modern world, the film will continue to have an uphill battle.

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