The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, Terry Gilliam)

This shouldn’t have worked… a typically overstuffed Gilliam fantasy, riddled with CGI, with a lead actor who died in the middle of filming. But if there’s anything Gilliam seems to be great at, it’s dealing creatively with catastrophe, so this came out miles better than the relatively smooth Brothers Grimm (oops, nevermind, research indicates that Grimm was ruined by fights with studios).

No surprise that the cowriter of Baron Munchausen and Brazil is along for the ride, since this is crammed with dreams and costumes, little stories and bizarre images. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, having a good year with this, Up and The Last Station) is immortal thanks to a deal with devil Tom Waits (his own sinister self plus a little mustache), who will claim Doctor P’s daughter Lily Cole (Rage) when she turns sixteen in a few days. Dr. P and his gang of circus misfits (including a shockingly good Verne Troyer and young Andrew Garfield, star of Boy A and the Red Riding trilogy) kidnap citizens within a magic dream-mirror, and try to make them pursue their ideal selves instead of succumbing to the devil’s lazy temptations. A bet is made, and they race to save enough souls to win back P’s daughter.

Enter Tony (Heath Ledger) as a charismatic con-artist who attracts Tom’s interest as he begins helping the carnies win the bet, modernizing their look and sucking people into the show. He’s a mysterious dude, which makes his shapeshifting into three other immensely likeable actors inside the dreamworld work, both narratively and visually. I didn’t even notice for a while when Johnny Depp replaced him. Way to save the movie there, Terry and gang. The movie tells us and tells us that Tony is a bad guy, a liar who steals from children, but it still came as a shock when he’s killed at the end. Charisma counts for a lot.

With all the negative-nellying I’ve heard about Parnassus, I’m glad to see it’s got a high IMDB rating and a couple oscar nominations. I was especially suspicious of the computer graphics, but they are bright and cartoonish, fake without trying to seem real, and work great in context, shaming Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka flick and Terry’s own Brothers Grimm. I’d already like to see it again… maybe rent the DVD and listen to Gilliam’s commentary when it comes out.

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