Saturday, January 09, 2010

REVIEW: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The standard rap on director Terry Gilliam is that he has "a bountiful imagination, but little control over it," a critic once wrote.

I don't quite agree. Gilliam's imagination is his best asset, and the wilder he runs with it, the better his films tend to be. His problem is that his narrative skills are not as strong as his visual ones, and sometimes his visual skills are so powerful, they tend to overwhelm his story and characters. Such is the case with his latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam had been one of my favorite directors, and from Time Bandits through to Twelve Monkeys, every film he made was at the least, very good. But after Twelve Monkeys, he hit a cold streak. I've heard a lot of people say they like his film of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I believe you have to have been drunk or stoned at least once in your life to appreciate that film; I have been neither. The Brothers Grimm had its moments but was hampered by studio interference (an old story for Gilliam). The word on Tideland was so noxious, I avoided it altogether.

So when I saw the trailers for Parnassus, I was encouraged. The visuals dazzled me, and the movie looked like a return to form for Gilliam. And it is - sort of.

Wild fantasy sequences abound, and this is when the film is at its best. Indeed, the visual style here is most reminiscent of his animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus. I particularly loved one sequence in which a winding road morphed into a long tongue. And there was one especially imaginative scene with the female lead (Lilly Cole) running while mirrors zip around her, with the mirrors showing different images. It's like the mirror scene from Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai on acid - or at least what I imagine acid to be like, since I've never done that kind of tripping.

You may notice I haven't said much of anything about the story, and there's a reason for that - I had a little trouble doping it out. Near as I could figure, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) gained immortality through a deal with the devil (Tom Waits), but put his daughter at risk in the process.

The even worse problem was that the movie didn't really make me care enough about the plot to try harder to figure it out. I wasn't particularly moved by any of the characters' plights. There are a lot of interesting ideas at play - perhaps too many. Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeon stuff the narrative with everything from a juanty musical number about police brutality to a skewering of overly earnest charities. Some of these vignettes are funny, but the film bites off more than it can chew. When the movie came back into the real world, I wanted to go back to the fantasy.

Regardless of all these points, the movie will still be most famous as the film Heath Ledger was working on when he died. His performance is solid, but it's not one of his more memorable characters. Circumstance made the character more interesting when Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell took Ledger's place in the special effects sequences that Ledger had yet to film.

So it's appropriate, then, that the titles label Parnassus as "A movie from Heath Ledger and friends." Is the film all it could be? No. But it's a fun piece of candy your eyes can taste for a couple of hours.



Scott Copeland said...

I intentionally waited to read your review until I wrote mine on my blog, and sure enough, we make the same basic points. The alternate world is worth the price of admission, but the "real" world was not well-enough defined.

Allison Dickson said...

I'm still looking forward to seeing this, though I do have a few trepidations about it if only because I tend to get lost in Gilliam's way of telling a story. He's sort of like the jazz of movie directors in that you have to find the order in the chaos.

Sir Critic said...

Terrific metaphor, Allie! One of the best descriptions I've ever heard of Gilliam.