The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole
Written By: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown

Despite the rich visual imagination of Terry Gilliam and an all-star cast that mostly turns in good work, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus collapses a lot like the rag-tag stage show the doctor puts on, mainly due to some pretty woeful character development — or more accurately, none at all. If a good movie is a satisfying meal, then this film is a box of chocolates — decadent and delicious, certainly, but fulfilling? Not so much.

As I sat watching this, I kept thinking “gad, what I’d give to have Gilliam handle a Harry Potter movie!” Without doubt it would be the one that audiences hated and critics treasured forever, that would smash and burn the franchise in the most luxurious manner possible. Ah well.

Among the many things to like in this movie are the visuals (even the CGI), the humour (which is curiously thin), the casting (most everyone brings their best, or in Colin Farrell’s case, the best he can do) and the moral dimensions to the story. Christopher Plummer as a drunken Dumbledore, Heath Ledger doing his best Johnny Depp impersonation (which Depp later has to recreate!), Tom Waits as a surprisingly believable and effective Old Scratch, Lily Cole as a ravishing bit of jailbait, and (to my great surprise) the best non-silent performance from Verne Troyer on record.

The plot opens up brilliantly; a bunch of drunken louts in London tease and torture the travelling gypsy show Doctor Parnassus puts on. One of them falls inside his magical mirror and is transported to (singing) “A World of Pure Imagination.” Not the last Willie Wonka reference you’ll get in this review, I should hasten to add. He is presented with a moral dilemma, chooses unwisely and pays the price. A fantastic setup.

Following this is about 90 minutes of patchy mish-mash that is at least very easy on the eye. As a tale about the choices we make and their consequences, Parnassus succeeds. As a film in which Heath Ledger turns in his final performance, I think he largely succeeds (which is to say he does a good job with the character, no career-changing high like Dark Knight and his accents is shall we say a bit dodgy in places but he holds the audience). But despite having the same team that gave us the brilliant morality of Brazil, and the same visual feast (better, in some ways) that made Munchausen so extraordinary (and to which this film is a definite kin), this one has a fatal weakness; key characters that are poorly-drawn and fail to bring the audience along with them.

The biggest failure in Parnassus is the character of Anton, a fellow player who seems utterly incapable of holding on to the same emotion for more than 10 seconds. I’ve seen the actor (Andrew Garfield) in other things and know this isn’t on his shoulders; the blame falls squarely on the screenplay. Garfield flails around as an indecisive pussy most of the time, first rescuing Ledger’s character (Tony) from certain death, then torturing him as a romantic rival, then befriending him, then hating him out of jealousy, then exposing his true character, but then … quite ridiculously … failing to be any sort of hero, and yet he gets the girl for completely unexplained reasons. You just never do understand why he reacts the way he does, where he’s “coming from,” or the motivation behind his countless mood shifts. He’s just fabulously wishy-washy and indecisive, but not played for laughs as he should be, making him unloveable to the viewer.

Tony himself is not a very clear-cut character, but at least it feels like that aspect is more deliberate with him. Did Tony ever have amnesia? Why is he so accepting of the bizarre (real) world he finds himself in with this odd company of players? Is he his own man or an agent of the devil? As they might say on Coronation Street, “what’s his game?” Even his backstory unravels in uneven layers, leaving the final revelations about his past as something of a damp squid that fails to be meaningful as it could easily have been. Tony also fails at being the hero, even when he tries, leaving the plot with a resolution, but not really an ending.

Plummer, Waits, Troyer and (surprisingly) Cole all just waltz right through it beautifully; if the film had really focussed on Parnassus — this dusty, broken shadow of Prospero — and relegated Tony to the obligatory “rogue who redeems himself as a hero in the end,” this movie would have worked. Instead, nobody really wins at all. The movie is ostensibly about Plummer’s interaction with Waits’ Satan, with Troyer’s Percy acting as a (conscience? An angel?) foil to Parnassus, and his daughter Valentina being literally made love to by the camera. These four were actually enough to make the movie work, in the same way that Lord of the Rings is richer for the hobbits and Gollum, but really its about Gandalf versus Sauron (via Saruman). Another failure of the film: if Tony and Anton would have formed a genuine triangle for the love of Valentina, we’d again have had ourselves a movie. No such luck. No wonder she wants to run away.

The effects, particularly early on, are pure Gilliam, inching ever closer to achieving digitally what his drawings have always reached for, a bright surrealism that blends Dali with Hello, Dolly!. The pinnacle of the “mirror world” is actually a nearly effects-less surprise music number that serves no purpose but is nevertheless purely joyful. Still, it only rarely rises above Tim Burton’s remarkably similar-looking work in his recent Willy Wonka (and forthcoming Alice in Wonderland). Gilliam’s films are famous for showing every dollar on screen, but this one also shows the pain of a sharply reduced $45M budget, which is just plain inadequate for a film of this scope — but these days its the best he can get. It may be (literally) a million times more money than he had to work with at the BBC, but he has simply lost the ability to care about anything smaller-scale than “beyond epic.”

Most other reviews will fixate on the swapping out of Tony with other actors for the “inside the mirror” scenes. Given that Tony ultimately makes little contribution to the story, it hardly matters — but for the record, Depp was quite good (given that Ledger was basically imitating him in the first place), Jude Law nearly pulls it off, and Colin Farrell is, as always, completely unwatchably awful. I would dearly love to shoot him in the face and have done with him, and he only reinforces that malice here by never making the slightest attempt to pretend he is playing a role also played by Heath Ledger (who I’m not a big fan of either, for the record) and thus trying to make his performance compatible with his. Seriously, I would love to shoot him in the face.

Perhaps the real problem is the meta-story most people seem to miss, that Parnassus is a thinly-veiled Gilliam doppelganger, a man with fantastic stories of rich imagination to tell who has tremendous difficulty finding an audience (handled so much less obviously in Munchausen), a relic of the old ways who refuses to change his beliefs in light of obvious evidence who revels in arcane minutia while the rest of us are busy shopping and texting. On this level, Parnassus comes off bitter, and Gilliam’s deliberate refusal to make the supporting characters support anything or adhere to the basic lines of archetypes all of human storytelling is built on can be seen as a kind of sad, ineffectual rage against both the corporate film-making profession and the rut of a “normal” life that everybody but him, he seems to think, crave to distraction. This film certainly brings into sharper focus why Gilliam is obsessed with colourful eccentrics like Don Quixote.

Ah, but I’ve made it sound like you shouldn’t see this film. On the contrary, it’s one of the best films of the entire year (honest!). Even unsatisfying, deeply bitter, under-budgeted Gilliam is better than most movies, and apart from Up this probably ranks as the most visually delightful film of 2009. There are many other films that have one element that utterly fails like this one does — it’s just that, because it’s Gilliam, we expect more. This one promises much but fails to fully deliver, which is almost worst than no film at all from a talent like Terry. And he’s made worse than this — much worse, if you believe the critics — but like an alcoholic’s empowering wife, we keep excusing his failures by pointing to his (artistic) successes, we keep overlooking his lesser efforts because his best ones are in point of fact cinematic masterpieces. Parnassus, though, finally rips away some of the facade; some of Terry Gilliam’s misfires are genuinely due to external factors, but most of them are actually flaws of the man himself.

Because this is Ledger’s last bow, a lot of people who wouldn’t normally ever see a Gilliam film are going to take a chance on this. Most of them will walk away shrugging, convinced that he is on drugs as least as strong as whatever actually killed Ledger. Ironically, nothing could be further from the truth.

In a just world, the money we throw away on a piece of shit star vehicle based on some 80s toy should be given to Gilliam, for only thus can his avaricious muse be properly fed and nourished. Sadly, I think the reality that he’ll always lose out to the crap peddlers when it comes to money, to freedom, to resources has driven him mad — doomed to keep tilting at Hollywood windmills, even after everyone points out to him that Hollywood doesn’t have any windmills.