Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Directed by Terry Gilliam.
2010. Rated PG-13, 123 minutes.
Christopher Plummer
Heath Ledger
Lily Cole
Andrew Garfield
Verne Troyer
Tom Waits
Johnny Depp
Jude Law
Colin Farrell

Peter Stormare

Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) is a withered, often drunk old man who runs a traveling sideshow. He appears not to have many days left. However, we shortly learn that a deal with the devil, AKA Mr. Nick (Waits), has given him immortality. Despite the deal, Doc isn’t a bad guy. In fact, he used to be a particularly disciplined monk. He is also competing with the evil to “win” souls. Yes, he’s playing for the good guys.

What follows is a movie that’s alternately amazing and frustrating. Whenever someone enters the imaginarium we’re treated to some fantastic visuals and things move along nicely. These scenes function like action scenes in other movies, but with the addidional benefit of adding to the story. The problem is the story is continually adding stuff until it becomes convoluted. This bogs down the picture as it constantly winds back on itself, adds layers and only half-heartedly explains them in an effort to maintain the mystery. It’s also never really clear how or why a soul is won. It seems people go into the imaginarium, have a blast and Parnassus claims them as won. They see to want to give him their money, but are they truly converted, or reborn, or whatever it is he’s trying to get them to be?

When it’s good, it’s outstanding. Aside from those visuals, there are some great performances. Plummer is perfect as the world-weary elder. As his daughter Valentina, who is growing disenchanted with her increasingly cryptic father, Lily Cole is also excellent. Of course, the headline grabber is Heath Ledger, for very unfortunate reasons. This is the movie he was filming when he passed away. He is very good as the mysterious Tony, whom our heroes seem to need but don’t necessarily trust.

Ledger’s death led director Terry Gilliam to make an inspired choice that helps the movie immensely. It’s also one he probably wouldn’t have made if he didn’t have to. That choice is have three different actors take over Ledger’s role. Those three, in order of appearance, are Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. The manner in which it is handled is nothing short of brilliant.

Like the best of Gilliam, this blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. However, this also blurs the line between good storytelling and bad. Both are present. Doctor Parnassus is an ambitious film and deserves to be lauded for that, but it tries to do too much which has the predictable effect of not doing much, at all.

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