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