Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Terry Gilliam’s mind doesn’t operate the same as the rest of us. His imagination runs wild on occasion and delivers films such as Brazil and the acid trip that is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is more Brazil than it is Fear and Loathing, but in this respect we’re talking about measures of obscurity, because this is a film all its own. I’ve watched it twice now and the first time looked at it with a crooked eye, not exactly sure what to make of it. My second viewing cleared up a variety of details — sorting the story out — but not entirely convincing me the film is up to snuff. Gilliam delivers a satisfying carnival trip into the imagination, but it never does much more than become a mildly intriguing, yet rudimentary, evaluation of good vs. evil.

The big draw to Doctor Parnassus, of course, will be the fact it is Heath Ledger’s final film as he died in the middle of its production and — while for a while it looked as if it would never be completed — Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped in and took over in areas of the film where the script allowed for it. Yup, this is a fantastical film in which people are not always who or what they seem, and changing faces are very much common place.

Christopher Plummer stars as the immortal Doctor Parnassus, the headliner in a traveling London road show in which his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) and “little” helper (Verne Troyer) also play a part. However, this isn’t your ordinary roadshow as a false mirror will lead you directly into a world of your own imagination where Doctor Parnassus will offer you two choices as he and the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) are in the business of collecting souls. The prize for the winner varies, but the back-story of Parnassus and the details of how their game is played out are much more interesting inquiries than the movie itself.

Perhaps the most fun I had with Doctor Parnassus was discussing the film with friends and fellow film critics afterward. However, even this got old very quickly as the room for discussion is rather limited. After hearing alternate theories on how Parnassus’s Imaginarium works and what the goal is, you can only then begin to look too deep into a film that isn’t much deeper than what’s available on the surface. This isn’t to say it’s a total bore as much as it’s a rather imaginative take on the elementary details of choosing between the light and the dark. Especially when the choices are so obvious.

Ledger’s passing obviously makes it a more intriguing feature, and the first time you see it you want to evaluate every tick and tock of his performance, and when you do you are sure to notice shades of his Oscar-winning performance as The Joker. This is merely the sentimental viewer in us all and it is welcoming to at least see him having fun on screen for one final time. Ledger’s Imaginarium substitutes (Depp, Law and Farrell) get limited screen time, with Farrell getting the meat of it in the film’s finale, but each plays their part well and, in fact, the story works without much of a hitch. Actually, if you didn’t know the circumstances you never would have guessed it wasn’t always intended to be played out this way.

Most interesting, though, is Lily Cole, a 21-year-old actress with hints of Christina Ricci and the face of a porcelain doll. She is perfect for the role of Valentina, both striking and unique in her appearance and fully capable of playing a role integral to the storyline. This isn’t to say she’s a show-stopper, but she definitely captures your attention.

Outside of the story and the performances, I would imagine the majority of moviegoers will come out discussing the effects and the Chocolate Factory-esque nature of the film once characters step into the Imaginarium. Considering the tone of the film everything works quite well and it isn’t until a couple of the later scenes with Farrell that you begin to get the impression the money started to run out and the effects weren’t able to be completed to their fullest. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun to look at.

Overall, this is definitely far more entertaining than Gilliam’s last film, Tideland, which bored me to absolute tears, but it isn’t a standout effort. You can have fun with it and perhaps a 10 minute conversation with friends afterward, but beyond that it almost feels like a tame effort from a director often known for pushing the envelope and testing the audience’s limit.



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