Quint calls THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS unadulterated Terry Gilliam!
Published at: May 16, 2009, 2:45 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I’m hectically collecting myself for a last minute trip to Las Vegas for a chance to sit down with some of the folks behind THE HANGOVER. It’s a quick in and out trip, but I wanted to get this review of Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS finished before I am corrupted by Sin City.
I think hopeful is the best term to describe my state of being going into this film. I love Gilliam. Who my age doesn’t? TIME BANDITS, MUNCHAUSEN and his Python work as a kid and then BRAZIL coming in as my tastes in film matured as a young teen and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS hitting just as I was undergoing my transition from teen to man.
I had faith that Gilliam’s interesting misfire THE BROTHERS GRIMM wasn’t indicative of his current abilities as a filmmaker, but rather of the constraints put upon him by the Weinstein overlords, but the dude is cursed. I don’t know what graveyard he trespassed in, what greek god he offended, how many cracks he has stepped on, what voodoo priest he stiffed, but something happened.
LOST IN LA MANCHA chronicles the death of one film and then his main star dies in the middle of filming his next.
We all know of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepping in to fill out Heath Ledger’s work as Tony, the shady main character and I knew they would be great and respectful of Ledger’s mostly finished performance, but I didn’t know how much of a stretch Gilliam was having to make to cover up Ledger’s premature departure. I had nightmare visions of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.
In short, I wasn’t concerned about Gilliam’s skills as a filmmaker, but more about how hard fate screwed him again.
The greatest compliment I can give the movie is that if I had been told the final product was exactly what Terry Gilliam had intended from the beginning I’d believe it. Heath is in the movie for the great majority of his character’s screen-time. This time fate only threw down a gauntlet and challenged Terry to overcome a huge set-back, not Nancy Kerriganed him.
The only stuff they didn’t shoot with Ledger were the three different times he steps into the mirror of Doctor Parnassus, a magical portal that is part of a traveling vaudeville-esque stage show.
Parnassus himself is played by Christopher Plummer who is just awesome in the movie. Parnassus is essentially God with a gambling problem. He can’t keep from making bets with Mr. Nick, Tom Waits’ devil in a bowler hat and that leads to the dilemma of the movie.
Parnassus champions the power of imagination. Much like Stephen King’s beams in his Dark Tower books, storytelling is what keeps Gilliam’s world continuing, it’s the light that keeps the darkness at bay. Their battle is always over humanity’s innate goodness or corruption.
Over the centuries Parnassus has defeated Mr. Nick in this game, has used his Imaginarium to show people the most wondrous aspects of their own thoughts and dreams, but as we get to the modern day theatricality has run its course. It’s nearly impossible to compete with Mr. Nick now and this time Parnassus’ own daughter is on the line.
Parnassus had won her mother, the love of his life, but being cursed with immortality all that is good eventually leaves him and all he has left of his true love is their daughter, Valentina (played by the pixie-ish Lily Cole).
When Heath Ledger’s Tony enters the story it’s quite shocking, actually. You think there was a moment of awkwardness in THE DARK KNIGHT when The Joker is brought to Michael Jai White in a body bag, then wait until you see him hanging from his neck, clearly dead.
Or so you think. There’s something tricky about Tony, the hanging man. He is resuscitated and quickly becomes a part of the traveling band, helping Parnassus cover the distance in his competition with Mr. Nick out of sheer charm.
Listen, nothing Heath Ledger does in this movie tops the iconographic turn as The Joker. I’m willing to bet people will think that was his last movie forever. It’s a huge performance in an incredibly great popcorn tentpole picture. But what Parnassus has is the heart. There’s something tragically poetic about this being Ledger’s final performance.
The mere fact that it brought together Farrell, Depp and Law to pay tribute (and donate their salaries to Ledger’s family) by itself resonates on the screen, but that’s not all. Upon Tony’s crossing over into the fantasy land with a paying customer we see him as she does… as the ultimate charming dreamboat, Johnny Depp.
Depp has a speech that keeps her from the temptation of comfort and easiness enacted by Mr. Nick to draw her soul away from Parnassus, a beautiful speech that I would bet money was written for Heath, invoking the likes of Princess Diana and James Dean… I choked up. At this moment that scene transcends the screen. It’s an incredibly important moment for the characters and the plot, but more than that it comments about something that is on every audience member’s mind and will be for decades to come.
It’s such a beautiful moment that if the rest of the movie had been crap I’d still have something to hold on to.
But luckily the movie isn’t. It’s Terry Gilliam at his purist. He didn’t have the Weinsteins looming over him this time out, but he also had the means to fully indulge his fantastic imagination the likes of which we haven’t seen since MUNCHAUSEN, but to a great effect in BRAZIL.
That’s high praise, I know, but I won’t say the movie is flawless. There’s a giant slowdown in the middle of the movie that I think might shake a few viewers loose. This stumbling block isn’t bad, it’s just that there was a slow build to the world behind the two reflective mylar strips that act as Parnassus’ mirror and we finally get a glimpse at the incredible fantasy side of the film, just enough to get comfortable (or spoiled, if you will) and then we’re pulled back into the real world for an extended stretch.
And I’m not kidding about this imaginationland. We see many different versions, each inspired by the mind who enters. It is both terrifying and awe-inspiring, which I think is probably a true and honest reflection of most of our true psyches. There’s a kid, nose in a hand-held video game, that stumbles in and his world is filled with giant Christopher Plummer head hot-air balloons and a landscape that looks like how I imagine crackheads see Candyland as they play the boardgame with their crackbabies.
Each time we’re behind the mirror we get Gilliam off his leash, nothing but his sheer creativity displayed for us to take in. It’s humbling, actually. There’s a scene that isn’t a mirror scene, but a flashback showing the first meeting of Mr. Nick and Parnassus that has the same feel and gave me shivers. The detail of this world is remarkable and remarkably executed.
Then you have everybody in the cast firing on all cylinders. Ledger, of course, even if his role is tainted by a sadness that he had no concept of as he constructed the character.
The other Tonys, Depp, Farrell and Law all pay apt tribute to Ledger in one form or another. Lily Cole is oddly beautiful with eyes you could fall into if you’re not careful. Plummer is the MVP of the film as far as I’m concerned. He’s quietly confident and brings all his years with him to show us an exhausted being who is driven to forever tell stories for the benefit of all humankind.
Verne Troyer is playing himself, as usual, but there’s an emotional resonance to his character here that is missing in everything else I’ve seen him in. Tom Waits as Mr. Nick is inspired casting. Harry mentioned that he stands up there with Walter Huston’s Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster and I agree wholeheartedly. Waits cuts his devil from the same giddy charmer cloth.
I fear one person who will be overlooked in this film is young Andrew Garfield (BOY A, LIONS FOR LAMBS) as Anton, the only person in the troupe who doubts Tony’s character. He’s a fairly average, normal character (well, as normal as someone who paints his face silver and dresses up like Mercury every night can be), but his character should have been the one audiences hate. He’s in love with Valentina and when Ledger joins the group she makes eyes for him.
The role of the jilted suitor isn’t exactly the audience favorite (except for Duckie and even though he still got Kristy Swanson I say he still got royally screwed), but Garfield gives Anton a real, humanly flawed and layered character, but it’s subtle. With so many great personalities running wild and Gilliam’s imagination being shot out of a cannon directly into our eyeballs at 24 frames a second I hope Garfield’s strong work here doesn’t get lost.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is pure, unadulterated, unhomogenized, unrestricted Terry Gilliam. You see the best of all of his past work, including a scene (involving cops) that could have pranced right out of Python sketch. A return to form? Yeah, I think you could say that. It’s certainly a welcome return to fantasy, especially when we’re given such a flawed character as Tony to be our lead.
I can see why Ledger was attracted to this role. Without giving anything away, you’ll think you know exactly where they’re going with him and his character about a quarter of the way through the movie and I’m telling you right now… You’re dead wrong. Let’s just say this character would not exist in a studio film.
I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of word about the movie out of Cannes. I’m sure you’ll see those passionately against the film and those passionately for it, like all of his best work. Love it or hate it, this is pure Terry Gilliam.
Alright, time to catch some sleep before my 30-ish hours in Las Vegas. Be back with a few really cool interviews very soon.
Follow Me On Twitter