The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Terry Gilliam
viewed: 05/11/10

Despite what you may have heard, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a surprisingly likeable if flawed film.  Most people know it, if at all, as the last film that actor Heath Ledger was working on when he died tragically in 2008.  How time does fly.  Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam managed to get Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell to fill in to complete filming enough to modify the story and make a film of it, saving the loss of the project as a whole.  And really, overall, their contribution pays off in the film’s logic.  But the film still flounders, especially towards the end.  And then, in my opinion, it’s actually kind of charming.

Ledger had actually co-starred in a much less successful Gilliam project, The Brothers Grimm (2005), which sort of showed Gilliam’s delights and downfalls.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will never be confused with Ledger’s best performances (The Dark Knight (2008) or Brokeback Mountain (2005)), nor with Gilliam’s best work (Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), Brazil (1985) or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)).  But it’s not as dire as many reviewers discredited it, nor nearly as good as one might hope.  Deeply in the vein of Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), it’s another paean to storytelling, fantasy, and imagination by a man with a lot of those, yet not enough perfection to make it stick every time.

The story is a convoluted one, about a Doctor Parnassus (played with great charm by Chrisopher Plummer), who via a series of deals with the devil (played by a knowing Tom Waits), develops a knack for story and fantasy, a sideshow performance in which on entrant enters his placid mind to create a surreal landscape of their own, an idealized and romanticized experience, like a live-walking dream.  He is assisted by his “midget” Verne Troyer, his daughter (the lovely Lily Cole), and her loving semi-boyfriend played by Andrew Garfield.

They meet Ledger as a tarot-predicted “hanged man”, who they rescue and recruit in their strange and dysfunctional, anachronistic performances.  Ledger’s character, post-rescue, shows signs of amnesia but also goodness and great skills in promotion that help the group.

Parnassus is dealt a hand by the devil that he must convert (entertain) five souls in 2 days before the 16th birthday of his daughter, or she’ll belong to the devil.  And while this drives Parnassus to drink and remember his own story of his over 1000 year life, it also sets the stage for all the drama.

The best sequences are really within the actors themselves.  I’ve never found Troyer as charming.  In fact, they are all charming.  The whole thing is likeable as one could want.  I kept hoping the film would keep up its pace and quality because I was enjoying it.

It does go a little too convoluted in the final stage, redeemed a bit in the denoument, but still, sadly a squandered chance.  Who knows how the story originally played out before Ledger’s death.  I think that Gilliam did a fine job finding quality actors to fulfill Ledger’s role and to build a story around which their different visages fit perfectly into the narrative.  The problem is still more in the overall of the film.  There is a loss of logic, a convolution of meaning, a confusion of what the story is really all about.  And it’s frustrating.

Gilliam is a very interesting director, whose catastrophes can be as interesting as his successes.  There is definite tragedy in Ledger’s death, ominously echoed throughout the film in its many references to life and death.  And there ligners a sadness about the film as well.  But still I give credit, and not just the credit of completing the film for financial sake but for honestly believing in the story and the performance, that something was worth salvaging and worth bringing to the full.  And while I wish it had been better, I feel more satisfied with the result than perhaps many.

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