Jude Law, Colin Farrell
of Doctor Parnassus
- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
once influential theatrical artist with a flair for surreal provocation and a madcap sense of humor makes some questionable decisions and winds up in a world where, at least for the moment, no one much cares for his stories. Doe this remind us of anyone we know?
Well, ex-Monty Python animator and trouble-plagued big budget cult movie director Terry Gilliam has made no secret of the autobiographical nature of "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus." Between that, the tragic death of Heath Ledger midway through filming, and the numerous references to the grim reaper that fill this dark and occasionally comic fantasy, it's kind of impossible not to think about the grim real world conditions of its making; not only did the production lose its star in the most painful way possible partway through filming, but producer William Vince also passed on from cancer during post-production, while Gilliam himself suffered serious injuries after being hit by a car. The writer-director emphasizes that the screenplay for "Parnassus" was not significantly rewritten after Ledger's death, but in view of this strangely disjointed film, that brings up a lot more questions than it answers.
Newly minted octogenarian Christopher Plummer is Dr. Parnassus, the immortal but eternally elderly and poverty-stricken proprietor of an archaic, ramshackle traveling show. The show might be a century or two behind the times, but it has one significantly dangerous gimmick: a supernatural portal into the doctor's imagination where danger, and perhaps a certain degree of enlightenment, lurks. A former super-monk who once believed himself responsible for the continued existence of the universe, as well as something of a degenerate gambler, Parnassus has made a series of losing bets with the devil, here known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). The final wager has the not-especially-good doctor charged with recruiting five souls for Satan before the day his beloved daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), arrives at the age of consent, 16 years of age. (This is England.) If he fails, Mr. Nick gets his daughter's soul for eternity.
Assisting Parnassus in his show business duties is a young stage magician, Anton (Andrew Garfield), who is understandably smitten with the beautiful Valentina, and the one thing all traveling showmen and quasi-wizards cannot do without, a wisecracking dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer of "Austin Powers" fame). Into this mix comes the hard-to-fathom not-quite lead character played by Heath Ledger. In an image that will no doubt disturb some, we first see the late actor as he is hanging by a noose, apparently dead. Thanks to a magical flute he has swallowed, he is revived. Though he appears to be suffering from amnesia, we learn that he is Tony, a would-be philanthropist on behalf of children fleeing a major scandal of some kind. (Gilliam says he is named after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.) His slippery nature soon manifests itself both in his receptivity to the romantic overtures of the vastly younger Valentina, and in the actions of three alter-egos that appear in the Imaginarium played by Ledger's friends, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.
For all its visual invention, the first half of "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" is horribly unfocused, plagued by some erratic or possibly confused performances, and a chore to sit through. Despite Gilliam's protestations, it's hard to imagine that some key scenes were not dispensed with or altered after Ledger's death. In any case, the story seems vague and unfocused and we're not sure what or who this movie is actually about.
Christopher Plummer's Dr. Parnassus is clearly the protagonist in the kind of terms you might have learned from your high school English teacher, but at many points in the film he's literally in the background. Our would-be young lovers, Valentina and Anton, aren't really the focus either. Anton is so mean to the girl he supposedly loves to the point of obsession, we wind up rooting against him. We like Valentina, but her role is mainly passive and Lily Cole seems underused. That leaves Ledger's Tony, of course. As the sole outsider in the story, he probably should be the character that the audience plugs into, initially in any case. Though Ledger is mostly likable and convincing in the role, it doesn't really work that way and halfway through, "Dr. Parnassus" hasn't found its focal point.
The bad news is that it never does; the good news is that, in a funny way, it doesn't matter. Gilliam starts to find his way in the second half by completely losing his way, as we spend more and more time inside the imaginarium and the visionary director is allowed to give his quasi-surrealist sensibilities full play, at least partially in the mode of Gilliam's closest film-making antecedent, master filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Moreover, the impressive effects work of the first half become ever more engaging as the director pays tribute to the fantastical landscapes of OG surrealist Salvador Dali, neoclassical fantasist Maxfield Parrish, and I'm sure others I didn't recognize.
Better yet, despite some largely unfortunate attempts at neo-Python comedy, the film barrels toward a conclusion that, while I couldn't begin to tell you exactly what happens, captured my attention with such odd touches as a cameo by actor Peter Stormare ("Fargo") as the President of the Universe. It all leads to a simple and moving coda featuring Plummer, at least as good an actor as an octogenarian in his days as a reliable leading man, and Verne Troyer that may say something about the never-ending nature of the artist's struggle.
Despite all that, I can only recommend "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" to the most dedicated fans of strange fantasy and Terry Gilliam. However, with all the wrong turns and massive bad luck he's suffered, it's quite clear that, like Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam still has some stories worth listening to left to tell.