Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

(Better late than never?)
There are few minds, and few men that like Terry Gilliam can unabashedly expose a viewer of their art to something new and uniquely their own. And while the The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has its flaws, it is a beautiful trip into Terry Gilliam's own Imaginarium, a reflection of who he is, a fact that in some ways, negates those flaws altogether.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal man of special gifts both with and without the help of the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits in the perfect role for him), able to unlock the secrets of the universe, and open the imaginations of anyone willing to enter through the mirror at the center of his sideshow, which he unsuccessfully runs with the help of an old friend (Verne Troyer) and his daughter (Lily Cole, perhaps the most beautiful woman that ever lived). After making a deal with Mr. Nick that promises to take his daughter from him once she reaches the age of 16, Parnassus loses hope, until crossing paths with an unlikely stranger, amnesiac Tony (Heath Ledger's final role) who the group finds hung to death under a bridge. He revitalizes the show and brings the deal with the Devil to the ultimate climax.

The imagery in the film, in pure Gilliam style, is absolutely stunning, lush, and visceral, as are the ideas that come forth about the power of imagination, storytelling, family, and morality, all favorite fascinations of Gilliams' that here proves him the master. Like the experience of the Imaginarium, no one person will leave this film with the same impression or insight as another, although most will certainly be enchanted by it. All the performances (down to the most minor) are equally engaging and impressive, helping to solidify the feeling of the story and the imagery, which is otherwise perfectly abstract and elusive, as the best of imagination and storytelling often is. The cast feels as if they've been working together for ages, a special benefit guaranteed on almost all Gilliam films. The connection between father and daughter team Plummer and Cole is undeniably real and draws the viewer in, while Ledger replacements Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell fade into their roles and never feel like cheap stand-ins. Even Troyer who has never really been given much of a chance as an actor, slide seamlessly into the narrative without causing his usual comedic distraction.

While Parnassus is the facilitator of the trips through the mirror, he is not the commander of it, allowing the one that enters the Imaginarium to control the final outcome and tone of their trip. But herein lies my only problem with the film, a criticism that Gilliam would surely not give a damn about. Until the end of the film, each trip and imagination is very similar, cartoonish in a style instantly recognizable as Gilliam's, sometimes bordering near his early work with Monty Python. While it may be a fine representation of Gilliam's own imagination, it doesn't feel right in the film, as one would assume that each person would have unique, and entirely different experiences and ideas within. A particularly painful example occurs when a rich woman enters to find variety of large high heeled shoes in bright, girly colors. Somehow, I was expecting more from Gilliam who is usually better able (even in the rest of the film) to provide more complex, unique imagery. The trips are also sometimes hindered by unrealistic CGI that makes them feel more cartoony and sometimes a bit cheap in certain places, a stark contrast to the world he worked so hard and with great success, to build when the group is outside of the Imaginarium.

It would be nice to see Gilliam put at least a toe or fingertip out of his own mind and instead reach out to viewer, but like other great filmmakers, that doesn't really matter, at least not to him. Regardless, the film is a unique work, with a depth and breadth that will be further revealed after multiple viewings. While critics panned it this year, look for this latest from Gilliam to pop-up on multiple "Best Of", "Cult", and "Misunderstood" lists in the years to come.

Did Wilde.Dash and I agree? Get her review here.

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