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In his introduction to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus director Terry Gilliam defensively tells us that what seemed a perfect production became another nightmare. Gilliam constructed the picture with his longtime writing partner Charles McKeown (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil) to be a celebration of his most popular themes, a sort of career retrospective movie. Then his star Heath Ledger died in mid-shooting, turning everything upside-down. The casting fixes made to finish the film actually do little harm, as Ledger's character wasn't meant to be the film's main focus. But a complicated thematic agenda plus a surfeit of digital visual work tend to bury the characters, leaving Gilliam with an expanding storyline that defies organization.
The thousand year-old Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) was once an Eastern Guru, but a catastrophic deal with Mr. Nick, The Devil (Tom Waits) has reduced him to a mountebank performer who travels in a horse-drawn caravan. His daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) performs in the show too, although she yearns for a conventional life. Also performing is young Anton (Andrew Garfield), who loves Valentina, and old friend Percy (Vern Troyer). Only Percy knows the full truth about the Doctor's predicament. Parnassus has been foolishly bargaining with Mr. Nick over the years. In exchange for a youthful romance, he promised to deliver Valentina's soul on her sixteenth birthday, now fast approaching. The troupe finds a new member in Tony (Heath Ledger), an amnesiac promoter who attracts more customers to the Doctor's strange little show.
The good news is that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus executes a neat dodge around the missing parts of Heath Ledger's performance. The actor died without filming his scenes within the fantasy world of the Doctor's show, where people are confronted by their secret desires. By demonstrating that people's appearances can change inside the Imaginarium, Ledger is replaced at various times by actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. Those stars do a good job imitating Ledger, and the loss is minimized. Director Gilliam is so secure with the change that he adds touches that make it obvious. At one point in the Imaginarium, Tony tells a woman that dying young and famous allows one to never grow old.
The less-than-good news is that director Gilliam's penchant for aimless clutter has finally caught up with him. Whenever his visuals are keyed to charming stage tricks and simple illusions, the old magic is there. But Gilliam shows no restraint when given access to computer-generated effects. The scenes of Parnassus' tailgate theater unfolding, with his actors prancing in bizarre costumes, are marvelous. As soon as we're confronted with endless panoramas of visual effects in the Imaginarium, the magic disappears. Gilliam's once-impressive imagination doesn't seem all that different from the fantasy worlds of Tim Burton or 101 other younger filmmakers that have toyed with alternate universes, dream states, holo-decks or just wishful thinking. We enter the world of imagination only to see a lot of same-old, same-old. When Gilliam was using paper cut-outs for similar visuals in TV's Monty Python, they frankly had more impact.
Not helping is that Gilliam and McKeown hang their tale on a fairly unlikeable Faust character. Dr. Parnassus is a dream weaver and storyteller unappreciated by the world, a conceit that points to Gilliam's self-image. Parnassus threw away his role as the leader of a group of enlightened monks in a foolish deal with Mr. Nick. If that's not bad enough, the Doctor also sold his daughter's soul. If this is some kind of bizarre autobiography, it doesn't flatter Gilliam at all.
Christopher Plummer is appealing as the sad-sack mentalist who can still summon up enough psychic energy to transform a mirror curtain into a portal to the Imaginarium. 1 Heath Ledger is splendid as a super salesman who allowed his charity foundation to be overturned by Russian loan sharks. Lily Cole is an attractive Valentina but a romantic triangle involving jealous actor Andrew Garfield doesn't really come together. The diminutive Verne Troyer (Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies) does standard sidekick duty. Parnassus asks what he would do without Percy, and gets the answer, "You'd just hire a midget".
Tom Waits lowers his voice to a hiss to play Mr. Nick as a sincere Devil who doesn't need to trick imperfect humans: they seem all too ready to fall under his influence. It's an interesting interpretation. Nick doesn't cheat Parnassus and to a degree sympathizes with him. The battle for souls between Parnassus and Mr. Nick is like the one in Stanley Donen's Bedazzled. This competition becomes a muddle when Gilliam doesn't explain the purpose of The Imaginarium. Parnassus' original cult simply existed to perpetuate stories, which they believe is necessary to maintain reality itself. That's The NeverEnding Story in a nutshell. What the Imaginarium has to do with harvesting souls is unclear. The patrons that go through the mirror and have good experiences are basically seeing their selfish dreams come true. Even though their ecstasy spurs them to abandon their worldly goods, they seem more delusional than redeemed or transmogrified. If not a choice between Good and Evil, what exactly is at stake?
The bait used by each side is all wrong. Dr. Parnassus creates a Pythonesque chorus of dancing cops, which he expects will attract a group of Russian criminals? Conversely, Mr. Nick claims the gangsters' souls by luring them with an image of their perfect peasant mother from back home. Loving your mother means losing your soul? Terry Gilliam's own imagination seems very disorganized -- especially when some of the visual jokes fall flat.
The movie comes to a partially resolved ending canted toward Gilliam's The Fisher King, with Parnassus finding respectability as a humble street performer. But we're not clear that the director really had anything coherent to express. The film does have enough charming moments and entertaining character turns to keep us interested. When he began taking us to his unique fantasy worlds in the 1980s, Terry Gilliam's pictures were unique. Now that idea is so common, and lookalike CGI effects so ordinary, that Gilliam's imagination has a hard time competing.
Sony's Blu-ray of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus looks fine, even when the screen is jammed with detail both ornamental and digitally-generated. The active audio track (5.1 DTS) manages well without resorting to slam-bang effects, but I don't recall the music making much of an impact.
Terry Gilliam talks non-stop on the full commentary, not quite rambling but demonstrating that his creative process is to keep his mind slightly unfocused. He talks about Heath Ledger at length, explaining how his "replacement" actors were eager to step in and help out. Gilliam is either obsessed with the problems that plague his productions, or simply likes to talk about them. He certainly got his share of grief on this show. The show is dedicated both to Ledger and to one of the film's producers, the late William Vince.
Gilliam appears on screen for an introduction as well, which he ends by calling people who have rented the disc, "cheapskates" -- in fun. A deleted scene is included, along with ten featurettes averaging about six minutes each. They cover all the technical aspects of the film and allow the actors ample opportunities to praise each other's work. A breakdown of an effects scene gets deep into technical details. The expected Heath Ledger tribute is here, and a piece showing actors attending international premieres. Gilliam shows off his own storyboards in another featurette. A trailer wraps up the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The idea that Dr. Parnassus' show confronts people with their own imaginations and aspirations, makes this movie look more than a little like an updating of George Pal's The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, from the frightening book The Circus of Dr. Lao -- a movie dying to be remade.
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.