Sunday, January 31, 2010

Film Review | The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

And now for something completely indifferent

by Thomas Delapa

Like The Dark Knight, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus shares a glum footnote in cinema history for containing a posthumous performance by Heath Ledger. But unlike the 2008 Batman blockbuster, Terry Gilliam’s film will likely expire quickly at the box-office.

When Ledger tragically died in January 2008, production hadn’t yet been completed on Gilliam’s star-crossed fantasy. Instead of throwing in the towel, Gilliam forged ahead, imaginatively substituting three Johnny-on-the-spot actors (including Johnny Depp) to complete Ledger’s scenes. The oddball results--along with some morbid ironies--are practically the only grounds to pay a visit to see Dr. Parnassus.

Long a Hollywood expatriate, Gilliam has begun to resemble the vagabond Orson Welles at the end of his career. Patching together eccentric projects, primarily backed by European investors, the American-born Gilliam is an auteur without a country, his quixotic imagination forever tilting (and teetering) at the windmills of commercialism. Indeed, while Welles’ legendary adaptation of Don Quixote was at least released, Gilliam’s 1999 version proved to be an impossible dream.

Even less coherent than his 2005 The Brothers Grimm (which also starred Ledger), Parnassus is a nebulous fantasy set in the streets of modern London. Christopher Plummer plays the not-so-good doctor, boozy and bearded leader of a troupe of traveling players. Creaky and ramshackle on the outside, the troupe’s horse-drawn wagon conceals a magical, mysterious “imaginarium,” where paying visitors can see their wildest dreams-- and nightmares--come true.

With co-writer Charles McKeown, Gilliam cobbles together a story that begins in the realm of Doctor Faustus, dabbles in satire, and ends in critical care. Ages ago, Parnassus gained immortality in a wager with Mr. Nick (the eternally raspy Tom Waits), a devilish trickster in a bowler hat. Now the devil has returned, ready to claim the hand of the doctor’s doll-faced 16-year-old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).

Gilliam operates under the naive assumption that visual fireworks should be ample to amuse us while he pulls digitally generated white rabbits out of his hat. Eerily introduced near-death, a rope around his neck, Ledger’s Tony joins the troupe, catching Valentina’s eye while turning another suitor, Anton (Andrew Garfield), green with jealousy.

In this smorgasbord of myth and whimsy, Gilliam piles plenty on his plate, little of it edible. He holds up the glories of old-fashioned storytelling, pitting it against the onslaught of vulgar modernism, personified by street ruffians and a gaggle of middle-aged matrons (see Brazil) who seek to restore their youth in the imaginarium. But it’s Gilliam’s own imagination that seems flimsy and shopworn. The scattershot satire also extends to Tony, who’s vaguely portrayed as a crooked philanthropist who’s sold his soul to Russian gangsters.

Is there a script doctor in the house? It’s hard enough to keep track of Gilliam’s eccentric musings, but audiences will be further baffled by the revolving door of actors who take Ledger’s place inside Parnassus’ magic mirror. At the very least, this parlor trick goes a long way to explain Johnny Depp’s wizardly box-office appeal. Of all the actors playing Tony (including Ledger himself), Depp is the only one to survive Gilliam’s sour medicine.


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