REVIEW: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [2009]

“Can you put a price on your dreams?”

Director Terry Gilliam is one of the few people working in the industry today whose work I will go to no matter what I’ve heard telling me I shouldn’t. I’m not saying this because press for his new The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was lackluster; in fact, the acclaim on this one is glowing in comparison to his last two. It’s that a visionary such as Gilliam faces a lot of problems when looking towards a new project. Between financing, making the insane things he sees in his mind a reality, and finding an audience for his often times difficult visions, he has had his share of wars against the powers that be. Heck, even God decided his Don Quixote project wasn’t ready to be made, (yet, it is slated to be his next film, so fingers crossed). Parnassus, oddly enough, was coming along quite splendidly with its foreign financiers, (Americans still don’t see the benefit of creative genius unless it makes billions in return), until possibly the biggest tragedy to hit a Gilliam production occurred—the death of Heath Ledger.

After watching the final version, with the addition of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to fill out Ledger’s uncompleted sequences, it is sad to say that the film sorely missed him. Gilliam is back in form with his fantastical imagination and innovative use of props. Looking at the traveling theatre troupe, I couldn’t help thinking of 12 Monkeys and how inventive the auteur got in creating props from random materials. The costumes worn by these circus-folk are both elaborate and ragged, combining the character that age and history give something with the freshness that using a past aesthetic, rather than a future one, can bring. I won’t say that had Ledger lived the scenes through the mirror would have been more realistic—that other world created by the entrant’s mind—yet I can’t shake the feeling it might have. I don’t want to assume that Gilliam went overboard in the colors, over-saturating everything, or in the green screen work, which is not the best at all, to make the facial transformation seem plausible, because it wasn’t necessary. The story itself makes the multiple actors playing Tony work; the special effects actually undo it by showing the artifice and sadly removing me from the magic onscreen otherwise.

When we are watching Parnassus and his clan perform for drunks and miscreants, the visuals are absolutely wonderful. Juxtaposing the dark and rainy back alleys with the cheerful mystique of the stage is perfect. It delineates the two worlds from one another while also showing what it is Parnassus is escaping from. After making a deal with the Devil many, many centuries ago, he won his immortality. As the Devil is prone to do, however, the victory came with a price—eventually the audience he so cherished and hoped to bring joy to so that they could be better people and create a better world disappeared. Soon he was left alone with his trusty sidekick Percy, relegated to a street corner begging for scraps and change. Immortality is no picnic when your life’s work is invisible to those around you. He had won a reprieve from death, yet he had died so long ago in his own mind, until that is, he sees the beauty of a woman to reinvigorate him. In comes the Devil and another deal—the woman for their child on her sixteenth birthday. Of course, the film opens on the cusp of that auspicious day; Valentina is soon to become the Devil’s prize.

Gilliam’s true worth is shown through this conflict of faith, allowing the audience to see this broken man turn to cowardice and the bottle rather than fight for his daughter’s life. Only the introduction of Ledger’s Tony shakes him from his funk, re-opening the show to find five souls and save them from the Devil, winning back Valentina. There are no coincidences though; everything happens for a reason and his crossing paths with the troupe is no accident. The darkness hiding behind each character begins to reveal itself at this point, right when their mental fortitude is needed to be strongest. Tony is running from his past, yet it keeps catching up to him no matter how deep he throws himself into this new family; Parnassus’s secrets surface despite his better judgment, proving that the truth isn’t always the best medicine; Valentina’s dream of a normal contemporary life appears as close to happening than ever before, except that she is about to be taken by the Devil; and Anton, the MC for this theatre show, slowly watches as the woman he loves begins to fall for this new outsider, a man he knows is hiding something horrible.

Everyone is allowed a glimpse of their true desires when they enter the magical mirror at the center of the stage; a world facilitated by Christopher Plummer’s mind, urging them to choose life as the Devil’s real world avatar Mr. Nick attempts to lead them astray. A fantasy has two sides, one of needs and one of wants. We all need something in order to survive, but the carnal instincts within us have a tendency of leading us to simple pleasures and easy choices—Tom Waits’ Mr. Nick relishes this fact. Both he and Plummer are the best parts of the film, pitted against each other in bets worth far more than money, portraying an amazing pairing of the weak-hearted idealist and the greedy, conniving villainy only a heathen can conjure up. Waits has made a career out of playing the Devil and I don’t think anyone does a better job. Their supporting players help add to the games and stakes at hand too. Lily Cole is an exotic looking woman to be sure, containing a beauty that is not at first seen. Her performance is just the right mixture of innocence and a desire to be free, helping Andrew Garfield’s Anton’s frustration at always losing her seem real. I also really enjoyed Verne Troyer’s turn as Percy, the snide voice of reason and conscience to Parnassus.

So, with some great performances, a fantasy world as only Gilliam can create, a wonderfully appropriate ending, and the closest environment to Brazil he’s attained since, what went wrong? I keep going back to the world behind the mirror, a world that while imaginative, still retained a dark side at the start. Only when Ledger’s Tony goes through the final three times does it become a sensory assault and, for lack of a better word, fake. There is so much that is great within this film, but the final film just doesn’t live up. It’s impossible to know if things would have been different had Ledger lived, as well as how much of the story changed to be able to complete the film as a result of the tragedy. No disrespect to Farrell, but being the final vessel for Tony and involved in a crucial realization of who the character is, I think not having Ledger perform hurt its effectiveness. Farrell even seems to be channeling his stylings and mannerisms, only making me miss the actor more. As a result, there always seems to be something missing throughout with every infusion of pure glee like a square peg trying to enter a round hole. It is in the darkness—albeit spiced with humor courtesy of Waits—where The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus excels; the candy-coated moments just feel forced and misleading, distracting from what works.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Heath Ledger as Tony. Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to Right: Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, Tom Waits as Mr. Nick. Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [2009]”

  1. The visuals were so inventive and hallucinogenic, it really didn’t bother me that the story was incoherent.

  2. I don’t think it was incoherent at all. If you buy into the premise, that a) you can bet against the Devil and b) that Parnassus can manifest your imagination into its own world, I believe the plot is pretty straight forward.

    The visuals are, for the most part amazing, but those bright worlds of shoddy green screen stuck out like a sore thumb. I also think the changing Tony into different people felt like a gimmick. I know that it was a necessary gimmick due to Ledger’s death, but the way it was utilized never made it feel like a serious part of the film.

    What it could have been if he remained alive is unknown; as is, I think it could have been great but just ended up being very good.

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