The film has recently gained a lot of notoriety due to the fact that it is Heath Ledger’s final film, and he died in the process of making it. In fact the film was not finished being shot when Ledger died suddenly of an accidental overdose almost two years ago. To finish the film a trio of A-list actors, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell step in. There are of course elements in the story which help us explain why one of our main characters is suddenly portrayed by a completely different actor. It is all part of the Imaginarium.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus tells the story of Doctor Parnasuss (Christopher Plummer, who had a banner year in 2009 with six films released) an immortal who is over a thousand years old. Parnassus is wise, but makes the mistake of making deals with the Devil (Tom Waits). The Devil gives Parnassus the ability to allow people to step into the “Imaginarium” where their imagination rules and is guided by Parnasuss. Once inside the Imaginarium the people must choose between the easy road (the Devil’s) or the high road (Parnassus’s). To play this bet with souls Parnassus travels around with a troupe in a giant caravan luring people into the Imaginarium. He is joined by his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who is perilously close to having her soul being under the ownership of the Devil. Anton (Andrew Garfield), the sleight of hand expert who also has feelings for Parnassus’s daughter Valentina. Rounding out the crew is Percy, the minute manager and spokesperson of the group.
Everything starts to change when Valentina saves a mysterious man (Ledger, Depp, Farrell, and Law) who is hanging off a bridge. This man has no apparent memory of who he is, but stays with the caravan to help them bring in more money, and more people for the Imaginarium. Who he is might change the whole group, and end the chance of winning a deal with the Devil for Parnassus.
If you’ve ever seen a film by Gilliam before, than you know what you see is not always what you get. Watching a Gilliam film is almost like walking into a M.C Escher or Salvador Dali painting. The colors and landscape are brilliant, but warped. This unique visual style is only exacerbated once someone takes a trip into the Imaginarium, where the world can change with the single thought from someone. Gilliam creates two separate worlds here, although both are ambiguous in their portrayal of good and evil. Parnassus may represent good, but his motives are not always pure, and many times are motivated by his own fascination and greed. The Devil who always represents evil is just as ambiguous, always granting Parnassus more chances to prove him wrong.
The images may border on fantastic, but the plot is sometimes tediously boring in its exposition. The strength of Gilliam’s movies are almost always the images that accompany the story, but it seems this time the images overwhelm a plot that seems dragged out. By the time we reach the climax of the film the audience is left wondering why it took so long to get to this far.
The plot may fall a bit short, but there isn’t a single actor or actress in this film that holds anything back. Once again we are reminded what an artist we lost in Ledger by seeing this film. His confidence on screen is engaging. He moves about the screen with a quick wit and sharp tongue. His performance is only amplified by the performances of Tom Waits and Christopher Plummer, who should be archenemies, but seem to banter as if they were best friends. Can you wage a life long war without getting attached to your opponent? Apparently not. Both Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield more than hold their own with a cast that could have easily overshadowed them. One upside to this film is that while we may have lost some great acting talent, this film showcases a few more folks who might be in the film landscape for a while.
It was an honorable thing that Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell did by stepping in to help finish their friend’s film. The transitions between all of them are flawless, and it is nice to see they nail Ledger’s mannerisms and movements. It is a bit jarring though, and the film might have felt differently had Ledger been able to finish.
This film is obviously not going to be for everyday audiences. If you are a fan of Gilliam’s other work like Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, you will be impressed enough by his visual flair to warrant the price of admission. If you weren’t impressed by his other work, don’t expect to be wooed here.
Another Take By Zac:
Terry Gilliam’s latest is a bizarre and imaginative tale that while a bit scatter shot and unclear at times it is still rather entertaining and allows for a great ensemble to have a lot of fun.
Dr. Parnassus is an old man, centuries old in fact, and he is involved in an elaborate betting game with the Devil that has gone back and forth over hundreds of years. Eternal life, women, and countless other stakes have been in play between the two and the fate of Parnassus’ daughter Valentina is currently up for grabs. The game they play revolves around a mirror in the possession of Parnassus who travels around in a mobile stage with a troupe including his daughter, himself, Anton who is a slight of hand artist, and Percy who is a little person that has been with Parnassus for ages, as they perform a show enticing patrons to pass through the mirror which takes them into their own imagination which are than manipulated by both The Devil and Parnassus toward a choice that must be made in their favor to win the game. With only days remaining till Valentina’s sixteenth birthday, the day in which she will become the property of the devil, a game to the first to gain patrons five souls begins and a mysterious young man comes into the troupe’s life when they find him hanging under a bridge, seemingly to his death.
I apologize for so much exposition on the plot but I believe this film can be further enjoyed by those that enter with the right frame of mind of what they are getting into. Also, that paragraph more clearly explains what is going on than the actual picture as the plot is revealed randomly as we go along and not in any sort of order. And I’m not saying that isn’t fine, in fact that is part of the films charm and lends itself to the weirdness of it all, I just think the more prepared you are to handle that weirdness the more accessible the film will be to the average moviegoer. Beyond the weird structure of the film, the flashbacks, the mirror world, and just about every character has some sort of bizarre quirk to it and if you don’t dig the weird you best steer else where as this is probably not up your ally.
All cautions aside, the imagination on display here is quite spectacular, beautiful even, and I was happy to get lost in Gilliam’s world. Everyone mirror world is a bit different and it is a shame we didn’t get to see more of it with the middle chunk of the film keeping us all but out of the mirror. Gilliam instead wisely uses this time to oddly set up the film through its all over structure and while its enjoyable it is quite the work out for the viewer. Gilliam’s vision is strong though and the effects in the mirror world are fantastically surreal and a blast to play in. The production design on the troupe’s caravan is also quite the accomplishment as well and is one of the coolest parts of the feature.
The actors in play are also quite good from top to bottom starting with Christopher Plummer as the delightfully kooky Dr. Parnassus. Weird, drunk, and brilliant mash together quite well and Plummer does a great job of keeping the character relatable even though he is almost of another world. The Devil is devilishly (sorry) played with delight by Tom Waits who is great as always. You can tell why Parnassus keeps getting sucked into wagers with the man, he is so damn convincing, and as usual we leave the picture wishing we could have had more from Mister Waits. Heath Ledger plays the real world version of the hanged man they find, Tony, who is short on memory and full of ideas. Ledger is effectively eccentric and a bit slimy as the mysterious man that the Devil puts into play and does a very fine job at slowly becoming a bit of a shady individual as the film roles on. His charisma is unstoppable though and as he sweeps women off their feet to try and participate in the show we easily understand why. Lily Cole is sexy and solid as Valentina and does a fine job at creating warmth with Plummer and gives us somewhat normal to care about in the picture. Vern Troyer is quite funny as Percy as well and is at his best when he and Plummer are bouncing off one another like a pair that has been bickering for thousands of years. Andrew Garfield is my least favorite in the cast and I just had a tough time believing his feelings towards Valentina and resentment towards Tony. Though he does a fine enough job to satisfy his need to the story, just wish he came off a tad less annoying. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all play a different incarnation of Tony on his three separate trips into the mirror and all of them do a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Ledger’s Tony while adding in the fantastical feeling Tony has when exposed to the mirror world. Farrell gets the most work and is the best of the three I might add, though they all do quite a fine job if you ask me giving each version of Tony a unique feel.
In the end, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a beautiful and creative world that is as weird as it is unique. Gilliam’s vision is strong and clear, even if his structure is not, and he gets some great work out of almost all of his actors. Diving into the imagination has never been so much fun and neither has games with the devil. As original and imaginative of a world to be found in cinemas in sometime, Dr. Parnassus’ Imaginarium is a place any fan of the weird should surely visit.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a B