The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

film_imaginarium_sm.gifWhile the film is not entirely successful, it certainly qualifies as a glorious mess of a failure.

 

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With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam returns to both the style and the subject matter of his 1980s films, including Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Its subject (in so far as I can pin one down) is the need to escape the oppression of modern society through the wonders of the imagination, while its visual style allows Gilliam to fully indulge his wildest flights of fancy. Munchausen collaborator Charles McKeown co-wrote the script with Gilliam, and while the film is not entirely successful, it certainly qualifies as a glorious mess of a failure.

There are lots of wonderfully creative special effects and bold visual ideas in The Imaginarium, so if you particularly favor those aspects of filmmaking, you will probably count it as more successful than I do. The film’s problems have to do with the muddled story and reliance on half-baked metaphors and the director’s lack of interest in developing anything at all; he’d rather just throw one idea after another up on the screen.

Given the disparity between the quality of the visuals and that of the film as a whole, as well as the problems that have visited many of his productions (the Onion headline "Terry Gilliam Barbecue Plagued by Production Delays" is, like most Onion headlines, uncomfortably close to the truth), one wonders if Gilliam’s true talents don’t lie in animation (where he began his career) and visual effects rather than directing.

But back to the immediate matter at hand. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is 1,000 years old and trying to capture five souls to turn over to the devil (Tom Waits) so Old Scratch won’t claim that of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) (the ungallant father traded her soul for his immortality). In the meantime he leads a motley troupe of carnival performers including the beautiful Valentina, the jealous Anton (a largely wasted Andrew Garfield), and a talented little person named Percy (Verne Troyer) around modern London where they perform to sparse and ill-mannered crowds. They rescue Tony (Heath Ledger) from death by hanging (reality has very little to do with anything in this movie; Valentina hangs obviously dry clothing on the line and Anton apparently hasn’t yet learned how to remove face paint), who volunteers some of his ideas for modernizing their presentation and bringing in more customers.

It’s surprising that the troupe is not more successful because they offer something unique: the chance to walk through a magic mirror behind which you can witness your true desires and/or get what you deserve. Or something like that. Gilliam is more interested in creating fabulously inventive visual spectacles than in developing a story that makes any kind of sense. When not performing, the troupe usually parks its caravan in some garbage-strewn wasteland behind the docks, a rather heavy-handed commentary on the bleakness of urban life. There’s also some back-story about Ledger’s character as the crooked head of a children’s charity (I think I heard something about using the kids as unwilling organ donors), but this is brought up and dropped quickly, as are most of the script’s other ideas.

But back to the good stuff. Some of those visuals are simply amazing. Tom Waits as a python rising up out of a river and Heath Ledger on the world’s tallest pair of stilts come to mind, as does a fantastical vision of a field full of gigantic pastel ladies’ pumps. The flying carpets scene is pretty cool as well, although the concept of the world being kept alive by a story casts an ironic shadow on a film which doesn’t seem to care about telling one itself. Production designer Anastasia Masaro, art directors Dan Hermansen and Denis Schnegg, visual effects supervisors John Paul Docherty and Richard Bain, and costume designer Monique Prodhomme deserve credit for creating amazing stuff for us to look at, even if there’s not much story to hold it all together.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past two years, you already know that production of The Imaginarium was temporarily halted by the January 2008 death of Heath Ledger. Gilliam came up with an elegant solution to the problem by casting three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) to play Ledger’s character when he’s on the far side of the mirror, and the visual matches are close enough that, given the fantastical nature of nearly everything else in The Imaginarium, you barely notice the substitutions. So the loss of a leading actor is not the problem with this film; rather, it’s the director’s refusal to discipline his ideas long enough to communicate anything more than passing interest. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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