Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

To my mind, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who think that Terry Gilliam is a cinematic genius, and those who are mistaken.

The former animator and member of the Monty Python troupe has had his ups and downs -- more down lately. In fact, he seems cursed.

Gilliam's last film, "Tideland," was barely released. The Don Quixote project he spent years trying to make fell apart -- the only tickets sold were for "Lost in La Mancha," a documentary chronicling the fiasco.

Consider his latest, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." His star, Heath Ledger, died tragically less than halfway through shooting. One week after wrapping, producer William Vince passed away. During post-production work, Gilliam was hit by a car and broke his back.

It's a minor miracle that "Parnassus" was even finished. That it's Gilliam's best film since 1991's "The Fisher King" should be considered a sign the gods are smiling on him, despite his misfortune.

The subtext of this film couldn't be clearer coming from a 69-year-old director whose battles with the studio system are legendary: It's about an ancient mystic who believes storytelling is what binds the universe together, spinning his tales for a world that has stopped listening.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) lives like a sideshow carny, travelling around London in a ramshackle wagon/stage/domicile, using psychic powers to offer passers-by a chance to wander through his mind, where their own imaginations can run wild.

Gilliam uses computer-generated imagery to depict the fantastic worlds conjured inside Parnassus' brain, where ladders rise miles high into the sky, or giant jewels twinkle like celestial stars lassoed and pulled down to earth.

Like James Cameron with "Avatar," Gilliam uses computers to paint his screen with images impossible to render with live action, rather than letting special effects overwhelm his story. It's like watching one of Gilliam's "Monty Python" morphing animations brought to life.

Joining the doctor's troupe are his teen daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who yearns to give up vagabond life for hearth and home; Anton (Andrew Garfield), the emcee who secretly adores Valentina; and Percy (Verne Troyer), a pint-sized figure whose supernatural pedigree is at least as complicated as Parnassus'.

Troyer delivers a great line early on, when asked where they are: "Geographically, in the northern hemisphere; socially, on the margins; and narratively, with some way to go."

One night after a typically disastrous performance, they stumble upon a man hanging from a noose under a bridge. Discovering him to be somehow still alive, they soon incorporate the amnesiatic fellow into their stage act.

This man, whose name is eventually found to be Tony, is played by Ledger. The obvious question everyone will have is how much the movie suffers from having its star unable to complete much of his filming. And the truth is, not as much as you'd think.

Gilliam, who co-write the script with Charles McKeown, cleverly uses Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to play Tony during scenes inside the Imaginarium. Since reality is bendable in there, and Tony's loyalties remain in doubt, it actually seems logical to have his physical likeness in flux.

The plot is driven by a wager between Parnassus and the Devil himself, Mr. Nick (a sly and scrumptious Tom Waits), with Valentina's soul at stake. The doctor will spin tales of light and goodness, and Nick of lust and fulfillment, to see which they choose.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" can best be described as Terry Gilliam's most Gilliam-esque movie. It's fun, playful, shocking, silly, and bursting with originality.

3.5 stars

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