Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 12/24/09 16:00:00

"We'll Just Chalk Up Tideland As A Bad Dream"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is like a trip down memory lane. Back to the memory Gilliam fans had before the disaster that was Tideland. Plagued with production problems and studio interference throughout his career, somehow or another Gilliam has almost always squeezed magic from calamity. If its occasionally the result of ego run amok then so be it, but a filmmaker of his vision never deserved the fate of his Don Quixote adaptation (chronicled in the documentary, Lost In La Mancha) or his return to form tragically stalled by the untimely passing of star Heath Ledger. Only temporarily though. Thanks to some colleagues stepping in to save the project, Gilliam's Imaginarium finished shooting and the result is not just a filmmaker retracing the Faustian elements of his career but something far more poignant than he could have ever imagined in a film appropriately labeled as coming from "Heath Ledger and friends."

The so-called Imaginarium consists of a traveling stage show headed by the Doctor (Christopher Plummer) himself. There's nothing spectacular about it as Parnassus spends his time during it in a mystical trance while Anton (Andrew Garfield) does his best to sell its purifying elements to a random audience of drunks and passerbys. Just don't let them through the mirror, a simple stage prop that serves as an entrance to the Doctor's subconscious; a place where your imagination takes over and a choice to indulge your worst temptation is offered. The other player in this bargain is Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), also known as the Devil himself, who a thousand years ago made a wager with Parnassus and doomed him to a life of immortality.

Along their travels, the group - which also includes righthand man, Percy (Verne Troyer) and his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) - picks up a fifth wheel. Hanging nearly to his death underneath a London bridge is Tony (Heath Ledger). Conveniently unaware of his name at first, clues to the stranger's existence are provided by newspaper articles hinting at his work for a children's charity and an admition by Dr. Nick that even he doesn't trust him. Tony sticks with Parnassus' crew though, paying him back for saving his life by helping to spruce up the act and use his considerable charms to entice rich ladies out of their pocketbooks. The Devil is never far away though and he makes a new wager with the Doctor. First one to lure five souls to either purity or damnation wins; a bet of considerable meaning to Parnassus for a victory means saving the one soul he cares the most about.

Often accused of overreaching by his detractors, Gilliam is unlikely to escape that criticism this go round either. Densely packed with a number of introductory moments during its first hour, its easy to imagine audiences becoming restless while the screenplay by Gilliam and Brazil collaborator, Charles McKeown, finds its footing. We're told in flashback the relationship between Parnassus and Dr. Nick, while Anton futilely pursues the lovely Valentina whose mind is on her forthcoming birthday, "the age of consent" where she dreams of a home of her own. With the arrival of Tony being the wild card in all of their plans, a power struggle and mystery to his identity is sure to follow. But viewers may still be wondering what the film is all about?

If patience is a virtue to be learned with immortality, then the more fidgety of observers will be rewarded with a wondrous second half that, dare one say, is given an extra jolt by the subtle changes having to be made by Ledger's death. As Tony's curiosity gets the better of him and goes through the rabbit hole, his appearance changes - a phenomenon established in the opening scene to explain this switch. Those wondering why it doesn't happen to everyone on the other side of the mirror may figure it for an unfortunate consequence of the updated fantasy elements. But there is a method to its madness and its a credit to Gilliam and crew how flawlessly it works its way into the story. This is not a dentist holding a cape in front of his face substituting for Bela Lugosi. Instead there's an aura of ironic perfection to the first facial reconstruction being that of Johnny Depp. Further trips reveal the presence of Jude Law and Colin Farrell and each of them have been written (or written into) exquisite scenes that enliven the story and quickly bring us around to the film's vision. Law is part of the film's most visually arresting sequence. Farrell gets the most flex to his portrayal of Tony as his memory comes full circle. Depp though, with the least amount of screen time, shows how wonderful he would have been in the silent era but also gets to deliver a speech about those taken before their time that is amongst the most poignant eulogies ever delivered on film.

Imaginarium is not just another treatise on life and death though. It's more about the eternal struggle between the faces we put on good and evil. The Devil is known more for his catalog of identities by name rather than appearance, but even without an outright acknowledgement of who he is, we know by reputation. Speculation on Parnassus though could prove to be far more interesting. Is he just a fallen monk with a penchant for gambling or the first one to collect a dozen disciples? Some of the film's most energetic moments are the exchanges from the gravelly-voiced Waits and tired Plummer, revealing the range of their relationship over the years. Cursed but inescapable. Alive but dead. Trickery but empathy. Light shows the way but the dark reveals the stars. Their immortality depends on the other and just when victory seems imminent, Dr. Nick bends the rules to guarantee that neither of them will ever win.

You may speculate The Imaginarium as another in a recent series of metaphorical autobiographies from filmmakers along the lines of Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience or George Romero's Diary of the Dead; with Gilliam as the stubborn Parnasssus and Dr. Nick as the Man keeping his imagination down. Serious Gilliam fans will be ready to whip out the DVD collection with reminders of everything from Time Bandits ("What would I do without you," asks Parnassus. Troyer's Percy responds, "Get a midget.") to the fantastical stories of Baron Munchausen and the Brothers Grimm and even a song-and-dance routine by faux cops that screams Monty Python. There's a lot to process during your first viewing. I'm on my second and am still unsure of seeing things recounted in the press notes. Gilliam's best works demand multiple viewings though for equal parts amazement and understanding. Complicated but not exclusionary, Gilliam and McKeown provide just enough answers to keep you discussing afterwards while your imaginarium works through the theoretical possibilities. And if that sounds like too much for you, the endless possibilities of Gilliam's should be no choice at all.

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