Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

By Elise Nakhnikian

How you feel about this movie, which might as well be called The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam, will depend entirely on how you feel about its writer-director.

Personally, I like him best when he’s part of a team but not out in front. I loved how Monty Python used Gilliam’s creaky-looking, distinctly handmade, Victorian-flavored collages to punctuate the troupe’s live-action sketches, transitioning between skits with a jerkily animated cartoon of, say, a giant, disembodied foot dropping out of the sky to crush something. And Gilliam co-directed (with fellow Python Terry Jones) two of my favorite Python movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life.

But he loses me when he goes solo as a director, particularly when he’s working from one of his own scripts.

Dystopian, disjointed fantasies like Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen don’t feel like stories to me; they feel like tours through the cluttered attic of Gilliam’s mind. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is his most solipsistic work yet, touring not only Gilliam’s mind but his other movies as well. As he told a Museum of the Moving Image interviewer, he initially conceived of the movie as “a compendium of things I’ve done and things I’ve been interested in.”

Like everyone else, Gilliam stores bits of flotsam from other people’s productions in his mental attic too. I saw shards of Lost Horizon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Men in Black, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Titanic in his latest movie, making it feel that much less original.

Its title character, a glamorously tattered, cannily self-contained Christopher Plummer, is an ancient sage or huckster or both who claims to be immortal. He clatters through the streets of modern-day London in a rickety double-decker horse-drawn cart that doubles as his home and his stage.

Parnassus is accompanied by his beautiful teenage daughter, Valentina (the porcelain-doll-faced Lily Cole), a young assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield of Boy A), and a dwarf named Percy (Mini-Me Verne Troyer), who serves as the troupe’s voice of reason. The four are soon joined by a mysterious stranger, the charismatic but untrustworthy Tony (Heath Ledger, in his last performance).

They’re all selling an illusion that appears to be real: Step behind the onstage curtain and, through some magical interplay between Parnassus’ imagination and your own, you enter a real-life version of your sweetest daydream.

Meanwhile, Dr. Parnassus keeps making side bets with the devil (Tom Waits), to add a little spice to his interminable life and a little tension to the story, but the plot is never the point in Gilliam’s movies. An art director’s paradise, Dr. Parnassus is more about the sets than the setup. Sometimes images advance the story, like when a doomed romance is remembered as an idyllic outing in a rowboat, which ends abruptly when the boat runs up against a cow’s bloated carcass. But more often, the story feels secondary to the images.

This movie pulls you in almost exclusively through the eyes, cramming as much detail as possible into each frame and often shooting through one of Gilliam’s favored wide-angle lenses to give you plenty to look at.

The actors mesmerize us too, pulling us past the thinly developed script and into their eyes through sheer force of character, just as their characters lure audience members through Dr. Parnassus’ curtain. Ledger and the three actors who finished his part, splitting it between them after his death, have been getting most of the attention, and they deserve every bit of the praise. Ledger makes Tony’s lazy charm look deceptively simple, and his replacements – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell -- all follow suit, Depp in particular channeling Ledger’s crooked grin and sly seductiveness. Plummer, Cole, and Garfield also do excellent work, and Troyer redeems himself from punchline status.

But a movie that keeps preaching “the power of the imagination to transform and illuminate our lives,” as Dr. Parnassus puts it, needs to do more than just feed us eye candy. Making Parnassus clearly exercised its creator’s imagination, but it didn’t do much for mine.

With all those quotes about the importance of storytelling and imagination, not to mention Dr. Parnassus’s amazing and almost entirely ignored imaginarium, Gilliam seems to want to make a point about the difficulty of capturing people’s attention in these overmediated days.

It’s a valid complaint, but it rings a little hollow from a guy who attracts as much media attention, as much funding, and as many fans as Gilliam does for doing exactly as he pleases.

I just hope he doesn’t include himself in the ranks of the unfairly neglected.

1 comment:

  1. Gilliam will be remembered for 12 Monkeys, which is terrically underrated and the only movie of his that is really flawless. Brazil is much better when seen with the correct cut of the film, the studio really did a number on the edit of that one.

    Both benefit greatly from re-watchings as you need the first viewing to see the forest and the latter ones to see the trees.

    My dream is that Gilliam will finally finish the Don Quixote movie with Johnny Depp, and do it in 3D, a format that Gilliam was born to work in.