Friday, January 15, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Warped reflections

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) • View trailer for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violent images, sensuality and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.10
Buy DVD: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus • Buy Blu-Ray: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [Blu-ray]

Terry Gilliam's imagination is both wildly, feverishly creative and oddly grungy; one gets the impression that he views dreams and nightmares as cluttered landscapes cobbled together by people who can't be bothered to tidy up their homes, let alone put any order to their deeply buried fantasies and fears.

This somewhat messy view of humanity goes all the way back to Gilliam's days with Monty Python, when (for example) he had much to do with the filthy, muck-infested depiction of medieval England in 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Ironically, the film has since been praised for the historical verisimilitude of its setting: far more realistic than the freshly scrubbed and impeccably garbed knights and ladies of so many Hollywood costume dramas.
Although Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, left) is inclined to reflect sadly on
the mess he has made of his life, an oddly solicitous Mr. Nick (Tom Waits)
rather charitably points out that things aren't that bad ... and besides, there's
always another wager to make.

Gilliam continued to focus on mankind's scruffier elements in his best big-screen fantasies, from the bedraggled heroes of Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to the street people of his inner-city masterpiece, The Fisher King.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is no different. We can readily believe that the ageless Parnassus, long ago granted immortality, truly has traveled the world for centuries with the same dilapidated, horse-drawn carriage-cum-circus: a deceptively rickety affair that possesses a much larger interior than its weather-worn exterior would suggest.

Once upon a time, perhaps back in the 18th century, Parnassus and his traveling troupe would have dazzled average passers-by with a blend of juggling, acrobatics, sly subterfuge and a truly magic mirror that serves as a gateway to the more embarrassing  or nastier  parts of the human soul. But the good doctor hasn't updated his schtick since then, and the smirking, condescending denizens of our 21st century lack the childlike sense of wonder that would have left their ancestors rapt whenever Parnassus' wagon rolled into town. More's the pity, because the traveling show's true nature remains just as pressing in this modern age.

Countless generations ago, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) bargained with the Devil, dubbed Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), for the gift of immortality. The Devil cheerfully granted this wish, because Parnassus hadn't anticipated the agony of eternal life, and of watching, over and over, as people he knew and loved grew old and left him.

We also eventually realize, thanks to the delightful subtlety of Waits' performance, that Mr. Nick sensed a kindred spirit in Parnassus all those years back: a worthy opponent for an endless celestial competition over the very nature of man.

Parnassus also has the extraordinary gift of inspiring the imaginations of others, forcing people to confront their true selves  often involving a change both physical and spiritual  when stepping through the mirror, which only "opens up" under special circumstances. Worthy and benevolent souls return to their real-world lives, generally more enlightened in some manner.

But a journey within Parnassus' mirror inevitably includes a side-trip temptation to a bar, brothel or some other brightly colored establishment run by Mr. Nick. Those who succumb  as easily as indulging in a bite of chocolate  are damned for eternity and never seen again.

It's the Devil's ancient fascination with souls, writ large, but with a noble opponent on the home team.

Alas, Parnassus never learns from his own mistakes, and he has been tricked more than once by Mr. Nick. The desire to experience love and a normal existence prompted the good doctor to bargain away his immortality, for a single lifetime of marital bliss, but Mr. Nick's price was horrific: the soul of Parnassus' sole child, his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), on her 16th birthday.

A milestone which, as this film opens, is mere days away.

Parnassus has concealed this information from the girl, having no idea how to do anything but what he has done for so long: mount shows in the hopes of winning the occasional soul, assisted by Valentina, a sarcastic and diminutive sidekick dubbed Percy (Verne Troyer) and a versatile young actor/ acrobat/juggler named Anton (Andrew Garfield).

With the days winding down, Parnassus retreats more frequently to a panic-stricken alcoholic haze.

Then ... two fresh elements:

First, Mr. Nick offers a new sudden-death challenge: If Parnassus can win five new souls before Valentina's birthday, she'll remain free.

Second, Parnassus and his increasingly dispirited players rescue a "hanged man"  ominously foretold by a tarot card  from beneath a London bridge. This turns out to be Tony (Heath Ledger, in his final performance), a charming rogue with a grifter's instinct, who both enchants Valentina and seems to have a natural talent for the unusual work performed by his new-found friends.

Matters, crazed to begin with, get even stranger.

Gilliam's script, co-written with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil, Baron Munchausen), has a marvelous premise but lacks the more coherent execution of his better films (which, it must be acknowledged, could get pretty Out There as well). To a great degree, this is the result of tragic circumstance; production was thrown into chaos by Ledger's untimely death.

We'll never know to what degree the narrative might have been better balanced as originally written, but Gilliam is to be commended for an ingenious solution to the catastrophe, which quite reasonably involves acknowledging the degree to which the magic mirror can prompt a physical change.

Just as the outwardly handsome Dorian Gray's soul became increasingly ugly and malignant in the painting that revealed his true self, in Oscar Wilde's classic story, Parnassus' mirror modifies Tony's appearance each time he ventures within its reflective surface.

The three actors who stepped in to complete Ledger's performance are an exhilarating surprise for unsuspecting viewers, and Tony's unusual "split personality" doesn't seem the slightest bit out of place. Indeed, it's far easier to handle this concept here, than the multiple Bob Dylans who were portrayed, in 2007's I'm Not There, by everybody from Christian Bale and Ledger (small world) to Cate Blanchett.

We see here, perhaps more enjoyably than with his sinister turn in The Dark Knight, the boyish charm and physical dexterity that made Ledger so memorable. There's a level of engaging informality and improvisation to the actor's performance; indeed, this is true of all these intriguing characters. Gilliam never has been an actor's director, preferring to craft his characters during casting, and then let his players bring spontaneity to the table.

That's certainly appropriate in this case, since our protagonists flirt with artifice so much anyway.

Waits makes a magnificently sinister Devil, his very being positively vibrating with gleeful malevolence. Troyer is great fun in an unexpectedly compassionate role that finally lets him leave Austin Powers and "Mini Me" behind.

Cole's Valentina is more a presence than a person: an iconic "perfect, unspoiled daughter" that her father wishes to protect, and Mr. Nick wishes to corrupt. Her acting chops are limited, although she holds her own; longtime Gilliam fans will be amused by her nod, in one scene, to Uma Thurman's Venus on the Half-Shell, from Baron Munchausen.

Garfield's Anton ... is hard to pin down. His performance is all over the map, and I suspect his character was the most damaged by Ledger's death; the evolving dynamic between Anton and Tony is crucial to the story, and one can't help wondering if revealing conversations had to be jettisoned.

Gilliam probably would acknowledge that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn't the film he hoped for, but it's by no means a failure. It's a mischievous, high-spirited, wildly inventive and unapologetically carefree mess ... like many of Gilliam's other movies. Embracing this one will be a matter of taste, but important lessons are waiting to be learned here.

And I can't help wishing that the good doctor's magic mirror could be employed in our own universe, for revealing glimpses within the souls of far too many real-world movers and shakers.

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