The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
by Matt Fagerholm
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Terry Gilliam isn’t a filmmaker so much as a force of nature. His films are so consuming, and artistic vision so uncompromising, that viewers are faced with a decision: either get swept up in his aggressively bizarre blizzard of invention, or block his torrent of weirdness with a close-minded umbrella. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the most gleefully whimsical and purely entertaining film he’s made since 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (and the first since Munchausen that Gilliam personally storyboarded).
The plot is secondary to the visual experience, which is stunningly alive and richly funny. Of course, the film will primarily be remembered for its behind-the-scenes story. After Heath Ledger’s untimely death during the production, three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) were brought in to complete his scenes. It was a true labor of love for the big-name stars, who admired Ledger’s work, and refused to be paid for their work (their income was given to Ledger’s daughter Matilda). Even if the film were a complete failure, it would be tremendously moving simply for that reason alone. Therefore, I’m all the more pleased to report that Parnassus is an utter delight for playfully adventurous viewers seeking an alternative from formulaic escapism (like Avatar).
Gilliam devotees will recognize this as an amalgamation of elements from his previous work, assembled to celebrate the vitality of storytelling. The story concerns a traveling theater company that performs for passive bystanders on street corners and in parking lots (Gilliam may be able to relate, since his last few films failed to find an audience). The sheer design of the company’s stage is marvelous to behold, particularly when it’s juxtaposed with mundane contemporary backdrops. Though the plot involves a deal with the devil, a transformative dreamworld, and a high-stakes race against time, the film never feels bogged down in exposition. The dialogue (by Gilliam and Charles McKeown) is often poetic and witty, allowing the character interactions to have an energy and spontaneity largely missing from most fantasies. Ledger reportedly improvised much of his dialogue, and his scenes (though few) stand as another enduring reminder of the profound talent and magnetism that were just coming into fruition.
As in I’m Not There (and, to a degree, The Dark Knight), there are various moments in the film that have acquired a level of chilling poignancy in the wake of Ledger’s passing. Depp has an extraordinary monologue about mortality, dreams and the eternal youth one can find through fantasy. It would be unfair to ignore the fabulous work of Ledger’s co-stars—Christopher Plummer (in what is technically the lead role), Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield and the hilarious Verne Troyer—whose solid presence helped prevent Gilliam’s overstuffed film from ripping apart at the seams. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus may be rather disjointed and disorganized, but that’s part of its freewheeling charm. I’ll take messy genius over tidy mediocrity any day.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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