The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: AMG Review
Jason Buchanan, AMG
Heath Ledgers passed while this was in production so it is his last performance.
A celluloid dreamer whose distinctively unique vision has seemed to dim somewhat in recent years, Terry Gilliam comes remarkably close to recapturing the magic of his most memorable films in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. A glorious mess of challenging concepts and deliciously surreal visuals, Imaginarium finds Gilliam doing what Gilliam does best -- letting his imagination run wild and hoping the audience can keep pace. Though that will be a nigh impossible task for many moviegoers, longtime fans will still find plenty to love about the notoriously troubled production, including the fact that Gilliam has come closer than ever to rendering his legendary Monty Python interstitials in live action. Images of a monolithic policeman head erupting from the earth and chorus lines of stocking-clad constables dancing like the Rockettes serve as amusing reminders of the director's talent for surfing the stream of consciousness, but also serve to enhance the story by permitting glimpses into each character's greatest dreams and darkest fears. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) was just a young monk when he first met Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), and couldn't resist the prospect of striking a bargain with Old Scratch in exchange for immortality. Centuries later, Dr. Parnassus met the woman of his dreams, and once again wagered with Mr. Nick -- this time in a bid to regain his youth. But there was a catch: in order to turn back time and win his true love's heart, Dr. Parnassus promised Mr. Nick the couple's firstborn, with the agreement that the Old Gentleman would come to collect on the child's 16th birthday. Now, on the eve of that very birthday, Mr. Nick offers Dr. Parnassus one last chance to save his daughter, Valentina: Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick will each compete to seduce five souls, with possession of Valentina going to whomever manages to complete the task first. As Dr. Parnassus and his band of misfits travel the streets of London granting commoners a chance to literally step into a world of their own imagination, the race to collect as many souls as possible begins. Just as the competition starts to heat up, Dr. Parnassus' gang saves a well-dressed stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) from certain death. The more Dr. Parnassus gets to know Tony, the more convinced he becomes that the ambitious amnesiac could be the key to saving Valentina from an infinity in the inferno. One needn't be a movie-news junkie to recall that the fate of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was thrown into jeopardy back in January 2008 when Heath Ledger died unexpectedly. At the time of his death, Ledger had shot only a fraction of his scenes. No stranger to adversity (see Lost in La Mancha), Gilliam managed to complete Parnassus with the help of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell -- each of whom agreed to play an alternate-dimension version of Tony every time the character stepped through Dr. Parnassus' magical mirror. Somewhat amazingly, the necessary innovation actually adds to the film's hallucinogenic charms rather than detracting from them; Tony is a mysterious character with a questionable past, and while there's no doubt Ledger would have capably handled the role by himself, enlisting other actors to portray Tony after he steps into the Imaginarium helps to underline the character's desperate identity crisis. It may have been the saving grace of the film, too, given that Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown's screenplay ultimately fails to strike the balance between the cerebral and the surreal that rendered The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys instant classics. Still, Gilliam's prowess as a visual storyteller has always trumped his talents as a writer, and in a time when so many screenwriters make painstaking attempts to explain every minute plot detail, his unwavering faith in imagination permits him to let the audience exercise their own a bit. There are few easy answers in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and moviegoers who detest being spoon-fed may actually view this as a benefit rather than a drawback. Given the ambition, scale, and innovation displayed here -- not the mention the tragic circumstances surrounding the production -- it's something of a small miracle that The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus works at all, much less stands as a giant step up from Gilliam's previous collaboration with Ledger -- the near unwatchable The Brothers Grimm. Perhaps if Gilliam can finally get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in the can, the director will be on his way to delivering another unmitigated classic. ~ Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide