Monday, January 11, 2010

Love: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam films are few and far between. When they finally surface they're to be treasured. The director has notoriously bad luck when it comes to film production, with more than a few projects sidelined or dropped by unrealistic budgets, accidents, and lack of studio backing. Gilliam famously became so stressed on the set of Brazil that he temporarily lost the use of his legs. He tried to adapt Don Quixote only to have his star injured and his set damaged in a flood. He set out to film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with Heath Ledger and, well, the rest is history. Fortunately, however, Gilliam's latest imaginative epic was saved from redundancy. Though at times it rambles, it accomplishes what the director does best and sends the viewer on a fanciful flight through baroque, innovative worlds that could only come from the mind of Gilliam. You could call it Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam, if you wanted, as Doctor Parnassus (a worn Christopher Plummer) seems to be his stand in; the holy fool who continues to triumph the power of the imagination in the face of modernity.
The film opens on Parnassus and his motley troupe of buskers traveling in a gypsy wagon around contemporary London, attempting to sway shoppers and drinkers onto their stage and through a tin foil mirror. Within, they're under the mind control of Parnassus, steeped in a world fueled by the melding of imaginations and led to participate unwittingly in a metaphysical battle for their soul. You see, Parnassus is engaged in a wager with devil stand-in Mr. Nick (Tom Waits with a skinny little mustache) for the safekeeping of his daughter Valentina's (the ethereal Lily Cole) soul. Ledger enters the picture as the hanged man, a mysterious amnesiac found under a bridge who's resuscitated and becomes an enthusiastic participant in the good doctor's uphill battle. Some of the details are a little sketchy. The plot really isn't much, and the leaps in logic are certainly many, but if you're willing to walk through that mirror yourself, the good-natured vision makes it all worthwhile.
The story is embellished with imagery that swirls between the Victorian and the cartoonish. It's a richly textured world that's as much museum or circus as it is a dream. In London, the actors are clockwork toys, puppets on a crowded stage. Beyond the mirror, ladders climb up through the clouds, black rivers transform into cobra snakes, neon lit bars sit in the wastelands at the base of steep mountain palaces, Tony (who begins as Ledger) transforms into other men (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, the actors Gilliam chose to respectfully fill in the missing links in Ledger's unfinished performance). The artistry is meticulous, and  Gilliam's actors are all strong enough to hold their own against it. Here that old stage maxim holds true: there is no role too small. Waits dances jauntily through the landscape while Cole proves she's got personality to back up her runway model looks. As Parnassus's trusted accomplice, Verne Troyer is given many of the film's sarcastic, self-doubting lines and it is he who plays the one person, scaled down Greek chorus; echoing the cynical viewer while the others continue to rush towards their individual fates.
As the original Tony, Ledger twitches, schemes, and woos. For those who feared his replacement would lead to a shoddy salvage job for the film as a whole: rest assured, within the world of Parnassus, the shift is more organic than seems conceivable, the footage including Ledger more abundant than previously acknowledged. The execution is such that it would have been a positive addition were Ledger still, in fact, alive.  Gilliam seems to have learned how to work around obstacles. His films never follow traditional plot construction, but instead swing wildly and grow in front of our eyes into something far from their opening scenes. As you sit in the dark of the cinema with your bag of overpriced popcorn, there's no telling when or where Parnassus will wind up, but if you sit patiently through its shaky opening, you will be rewarded with something that you truly have not seen before.

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