DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassis

Saturday 12 September 2009

TIFF 2009: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassis

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) Dir. Terry Gilliam
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Verne Troyer.


Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

Like most viewers, I am both cursed and blessed with a continued and confused love-hate-indifferent relationship with the mad visionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam. From his first exposure to the world as the animator of the surrealist interstitials within the legendary BBC sketch comedy “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, through his ups (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “Time Bandits”, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”), downs (“Brazil”, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, “The Meaning of Life”, “Tideland”) and in-betweens (“The Brothers Grimm”, “The Fisher King”, “Jabberwocky”), I look forward to each new picture with an uneasy mixture of anticipation, apathy and dread. This, of course, is not a bad thing. It’s his ability to continually get projects off the ground that defy all odds and instil such a wide range of emotions that finally entrench his place in the world as an artist who continues to make the world a better place to live in. In spite of this position of consummate artistry, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a picture that falls short of in-between status. It’s not quite as low on the totem pole as “Tideland”, but save for a mere handful of saving graces; it’s pretty much unwatchable as it is inconsequential.

As a simple morality tale layered with images of occasionally astounding beauty, the picture is not without some dollops of merit, but as a simple morality tale that has any real entertainment value, a compelling narrative, a forward drive that urges us to stay with it, an audacious aesthetic that dazzles and provokes us, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is sorely lacking. It is, in a sense, about as dead as its dear-departed supporting player, Heath Ledger.

The rather unexceptional, though vaguely serviceable narrative has the title character (Christopher Plummer) presiding over an old style travelling show – not unlike what might have appeared in travelling carnivals in days gone by – where dressed in Swami-like garb and accompanied by his daughter and assistant Valentina (the eye candy that is Lily Cole), Parnassus gives audiences a chance to choose between an experience of great beauty and one of utter darkness. Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), AKA the devil, appears to remind Parnassus that he will soon be claiming Lily on her 16th birthday as per their ages-old bargain which bestowed immortality and eternal youth upon Parnassus. Always willing to consider new wagers, Mr. Nick agrees that the winner of Lily will be whoever manages to first enlist five souls and for his part, Parnassus promises Lily’s hand in marriage to whoever helps him achieve his goal successfully.

Enter the late Heath Ledger as Tony, a young man who is rescued by the Parnassus team from the end of a mysterious noose that appears strung over a bridge. Tony is the eventual Prince Charming who will come to the rescue. However, as everyone knows by now, Ledger tragically died during a brief hiatus from the filming with only a portion of his role in the can. Here is where I tip my hat to Gilliam. His solution was an inspired rewrite and to ask Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play the role of Tony in the three dream worlds that had yet to be filmed. A brilliant solution and it is a marvel to see how it plays out (all three are remarkably charming – even more so than Ledger himself). Alas, we are only blown away because we KNOW about the challenges Gilliam faced in order to save the film. In fact, he does make the movie marginally better because of it, but if one considers the narrative itself and imagines Ledger living to complete the whole thing, all one is left with finally, is a trite and unevenly paced morality tale. A tired, sad excuse of a movie with only flashes of what Gilliam can do when he is working at the peak of his powers.

For me, Gilliam is at his best when the narrative completely demands an alternate reality rooted strongly in character. This is why “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” are such relentlessly brilliant, disturbing and hilarious visionary works and why many of the others are total wank jobs. “Brazil”, for example, is a movie bereft of character and one I tried to sit through over its entire life as a film about twenty times. When I practically nailed my feet to the floor to sit all the way through the director’s cut of “Brazil” on laserdisc, the experience was as painful to me as an attack of kidney stones I had some years before. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, however, does not even inspire the kind of hatred I felt towards “Brazil” which at least is an extreme emotion and one that contrasts my utter indifference towards the new picture.

There are, as previously mentioned, some meagre pleasures to be had in Gilliam’s film. The stand-ins for Heath are all wonderful, but again, I also wonder if my goodwill towards their performances has something to do with the knowledge that all three of them bestowed their considerable fees upon Ledger’s daughter as a trust fund to contribute to her well being as she grows to adulthood. Christopher Plummer is, as always, in good form, but I almost wish he’d been far less restrained than he is – especially given the flamboyance of the role. In fact, the movie might have benefited from an all-out Plummer special hambone-deluxe as he provided in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” where he played the evil, Shakespeare-spouting Klingon villain General Chang. That said: Plummer’s occasional verbal sparring with Tom Waits in “Parnassus” is moderately engaging.

Sadly, and in conclusion, it’s the tragedy of Heath Ledger’s death that makes “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” at all watchable, but without this knowledge, the picture simply doesn’t have enough going for it to stand up on its own two legs. A pity.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is playing at the 2009 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and will be theatrically released post-festival by E1 Films.


Andrew K. said...

How did you get to see this so early? I'm still a little hopeful but I was not expecting much.

Klymkiwosity said...

It's playing at the Toronto International Film Festival which is where I saw it.