January 07, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Why so serious?

Grade: B –

Director: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Richard Riddell, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

The central figure in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is not the eponymous thousand-year-old storyteller – played by the equally ageless Christopher Plummer – who rambles around London aboard a steampunk carriage with his travelling theatre troupe, offering audience members the chance to escape reality through a “magic mirror” that actually serves as a portal into the doctor’s phantasmagorical mind.

Instead, the real star is director Terry Gilliam, the mad cinematic wizard who has described his latest shambolic fantasy trip as “autobiographical,” the story of an aging showman with a vivid imagination “being frustrated, trying to amaze people and they’re not paying attention.”

On cue, Imaginarium comprises everything that is both ingenious and infuriating about Gilliam (Brazil; The Fisher King). The former Monty Python member’s visual flourishes remain as dizzying and hypnotic as ever, but they obscure the same lack of narrative underpinning that has crippled many of his lesser concoctions.

Parnassus’ gift is the product of a deal with the Devil (a remarkably creepy Tom Waits), who has come back to collect his end of the bargain, the doctor’s daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Enter Tony (the late Heath Ledger), a mysterious amnesiac who joins the tatterdemalion sideshow and eventual offers way to improve its commercial fortunes. “We need to meet the public halfway,” he explains. “The secret is not to hide, to go places people never expected you at.”

Ledger passed away mid-production before his scenes through Parnassus’ looking-glass could be shot. Gilliam’s solution was to cast a trio of actors – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell – as extra-dimensional variants of Tony, a stopgap measure that actually works rather well within the Imaginarium’s otherworldly context.

A pall hangs over Imaginarium, but most of it necessarily stems from Ledger’s presence and the foreknowledge of his real-life demise. Still, while this vehicle may be a polished clunker ill-equipped to carry its star very far, Ledger manages to wring out one last dynamic performance, as he did so often during his truncated career.

There is an abundance of ideas free-floating throughout Imaginarium’s ether. Gilliam takes swipes at those who suggest he modulate his moviemaking for the masses. Indeed, Gilliam’s casting of four A-listers to play Tony – while dictated by tragic circumstance – can be seen as a cynical commentary on Hollywood’s affinity for celebrity over content when it comes to gauging a film’s marketability.

But, while Gilliam may cast himself as a cinematic martyr, many of his wounds are self-inflicted. His storyline here is typically outlandish, if not indecipherable, a rickety framework for the director’s disjointed CGI-laden sequences. Coherence remains illusive, seemingly only one enlightening but ultimately nonexistent scene away. Gilliam devotees may decipher some order out of the onscreen chaos, but the rest of us will welcome our return trip back to reality.

Neil Morris

*Originally published on www.indyweek.com

1 comment:

. said...

You missed the point. BTW, the wagon wasn't Steampunk anymore than a Gypsy Vardo is Steampunk.