The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Plagued by misfortune, Terry Gilliam’s 'Imaginarium' never overcomes behind-the-scenes turmoil.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Jan. 5, 2010

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Hells spells: Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) needs to undo a deal with the devil to save his daughter.

Terry Gilliam can’t catch a break.

So wrote a colleague of mine mere hours after hearing that the frighteningly gifted Heath Ledger passed away while only a third of the way through shooting a starring role in Gilliam’s latest film.

The rambunctious Monty Python alum has had a Dickensian time getting his pet projects made over the years, beginning with a calamitous PR war over his brilliant 1985 dystopia Brazil . Gilliam’s film became such an object of loathing amongst studio heads, the auteur had to hit the streets and the Today show, armed with picket signs and co-star Robert De Niro, pleading for the picture’s release. It was only after a stolen print was smuggled to a secret screening for the Los Angeles Society of Film Critics that Universal was finally publicly embarrassed enough to release Brazil .

Bad luck seems to follow this guy. The 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha is an excruciating chronicle of Gilliam’s aborted feature The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an uncompleted project that fell victim to natural disasters, health problems and bad planning. And just when things were starting to look up, Terry Gilliam took on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus .

First Ledger died. Then producer William Vince succumbed to cancer. During postproduction, Gilliam was hit by a car and broke his back. Ever get the feeling that somebody’s trying to tell you something?

All things considered, I would like nothing more than to report that Parnassus is a rousing tribute to the deceased and a triumph over impossible odds. But, sadly, the film is an unholy mess.

Christopher Plummer stars as the title character, who drags a gigantic medieval stage setup around modern London, performing ancient morality plays in back alleys, much to the scorn of drunken pub-crawlers. Hundreds of years ago, back when he was just a young monk, Parnassus made an unwise wager with the Devil Himself (Tom Waits, having a grand old time as the satanic Mr. Nick) in exchange for immortality, and now old Satan’s coming to collect the soul of Parnassus’ teenage daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole.)

The only loophole lies in the Imaginarium itself—a mirrored portal to the netherworld located on Parnassus’ stage. All who enter must come face to face with their subconscious desires and avoid Waits’ sinister temptations. Those who choose virtuously are rewarded with ecstasy. Those who don’t get to hang out with Tom Waits for all eternity. If Parnassus can find five pure souls that survive the Imaginarium, the deal is off and Valentina goes free.

Ledger makes his entrance, creepily enough, dangling from a noose beneath a London bridge. He’s a slicked-hair, fast-talking grifter who defrauded a charity and is on the run from the Russian mob. There’s some supernatural business afoot with his black-magic tattoos, but it’s hard to tell how he fits in to the grander scheme as the character is (presumably by necessity) extremely underdeveloped.

A very clever patch job in the rewrite calls for one’s physical appearance to distort upon entering the Imaginarium, allowing Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to take over Ledger’s role for certain sequences. His friends do a fine job mimicking Heath’s performance, but there’s not much meat to the role. So many scenes in Parnassus feel dashed off, the point of view changing constantly. We’re never quite sure who the protagonist is supposed to be.

It’s hard not to wonder what could’ve been had Ledger survived. But as is, Parnassus is full of false starts, abandoned storylines and wild CGI vistas full of crazy Gilliam visuals—including a dancing kick-line of policemen in skirts. There’s just no focus or sense of purpose. It feels like it was completed in spite of itself.

But Gilliam, bless his heart, remains indomitable. He’s already in preproduction on his next picture—another whack at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote . Better luck this time, Terry. C-

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Comments 1 - 5 of 5
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1. Sean M. E. said... on Jan 6, 2010 at 03:59PM

“So much of the story (what little there is of it) unfortunately hangs on Lily Cole. She may come to prove herself in another film somewhere down the line, but she's nothing more than a pretty face here. She has potential but the story and the role required an actress to step up to the challenge and Cole withers instead. It's a disappointment -- especially since it's Gilliam's first original story in ages -- but since it's a Gilliam film I hope it turns out to be a smashing success at the box office nonetheless.”

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2. Matthue DeYarus said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 02:53PM

“I could not disagree with this review more...the criticism of this film reminds me of the bruhaha over Brazil -- which was clearly a case of Mr. Gilliam being 'ahead of his time' -- Brazil was/is a fantastic, even significant movie and this is, though not as good, certainly a thought-provoking and visually stunning addition to his work. A lot of the themes in Parnassus seem to escape any notice in reviews, like the deconstruction of ambition to 'save the world' that animates the ladder/stilt scene, and I think people just aren't working hard enough to 'get' the material...not all directors need to be, or should be, obvious...sometimes YOU have to put some skin in the game!”

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3. Mhairi Galloway said... on Apr 6, 2010 at 05:55AM

“The storyline was extremely weak, which I suppose is ironic considering the film is about a storyteller. It came across as nothing more than a series of half-baked ideas strung together with lots of bumbling around and falling over. The midget character added to the chaotic unpleasantness, constantly thrashing people for no good reason with sticks or kicking them painfully in the shins. The whole thing needs a massive script overhaul and a ruthless editting job!”

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4. Jake Moon said... on Apr 16, 2010 at 12:13AM

“Gilliam's latest movie can probably only be enjoyed by those who have a joyous sense of wonder left in them.

I watched the movie without reading any reviews beforehand and I score it a solid Ten out of Ten stars. The story and visuals are both amazing. Those who don't "get it" and complain about it actually say more about their own limitations than about the movie.

The movie was a huge success in Europe. Perhaps a testament to a more diverse and open culture than exists in the US. It seems people in the US want one kind of movie only and anything that deviates from the norm is ultimately seen as "bad".
How I pity those who cannot open their minds and simply absorb the experience.”

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5. Teigon Stone said... on May 7, 2010 at 12:41PM

“I read Jake Moon's little blurb and had to comment. I believe this film had several fantastic themes that were nipped in the bud due to unfortunate under development. Many of the themes were centered around ledger's character who, because of his death, remained underdeveloped. I am sure even Gilliam would not argue with that fact. It is easy to see that some crucial "depth generating" scenes with Tony were thrown "inside the mirror" and rushed due to the limited footage of heath Gilliam had to work with.
The US (and specifically this reviewer) is not saying this movie is "bad" because it deviates from the norm, but rather it is "sub-par" due to a lack of character development, and all the editing being centered around the inclusion of heath's limited footage.
I do have a "joyous sense of wonder" but poor development and atrocious acting on the part of Lily Cole, Vern Troyer, and yes even Colin Farrell have taking this movie from a "ten out of ten" to a six.


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