This was posted to my old blog last February 25, 2010.
This review mentions some minor plot spoilers.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is one of those films that lingers at the back of one’s mind, long after it’s been viewed. I watched it last January, began a review, then got too busy to finish it. More than a month later, here I am, still thinking about it. So here goes:
I was excited to get a couple of hours off from Serious Family Matters to go to the local cinema to watch The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Ricky may have introduced me to the cult of all things Monty Python, but I was a Terry Gilliam fan before knowing who he was a member of that gang. I loved Time Bandits and The Fisher King long before I knew the same guy directed both films. (Yes, I remember the Jurassic era known as pre-IMDB.)
I also have to admit to a morbid sort of curiosity towards what others simply call “Heath Ledger’s last film.” In case you didn’t know, Gilliam is notorious for being the most unfortunate director in Hollywood; his films are always plagued with accidents, budget problems, and fights with producers and distributors. When I first read about Gilliam’s predicament, I was like, ZOMG! Just how, exactly, would Gilliam deal with the problem of his lead actor passing away before filming was completed? It boggled my mind.
Enough rambling and useless trivia, though.
The first onscreen image of Heath Ledger is uncanny and ominous. He is shown, dressed in a white suit and half-strangled by a rope. It’s kind of shocking to see a dead guy play a half-dead guy! He dangles under a bridge until the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a seemingly low-budget sideshow troupe, cut him down and rescue him. His name is Tony, and that’s all he can remember. For the lack of anything better to do, Tony tags along with the Imaginarium and tries to help their “show” reach an upscale market… if only he understood what he was actually selling to the crowd.
One of the subplots of the film revolves around the recovery of Tony’s memory, and the awful crimes he committed. Make no mistake about it: Tony is a con man… but such a charming, passionate one.
After his establishing scenes, I expected for Ledger to simply fade away, but no. There was more Heath Ledger than I was initially led to believe. There are just a handful of scenes each for Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell who took turns playing Tony, too. (I love Johnny Depp but the crazed look in Jude Law’s eyes was simply awesome.) Gilliam was quite lucky that the story was flexible enough to accommodate the change with actors; I can’t imagine something like Brothers Grimm or Brazil with the same conceit.
But what is the Imaginarium? I won’t spoil that major part of the film, except that its one of those amazing places that is clearly the product of a chaotic genius. It’s the perfect setting for a character like Tony to make amends with his past and decide the course of his future, and for the art direction to run amok with visuals ripe with metaphors.
The film is full of the usual Pythonesque elements: giant sculptures with gaping mouths and rolling tongues, dancing bobbies, crossing-dressing young men. But even if someone is not familiar with the TV series, these visuals are still funny, and sometimes overwhelming. They definitely make it essential for the film to be watched on a large screen.
Like most of Gilliam’s work, The Imaginarium is a crazy roller coaster ride into fantasy and the dark side of the soul. Dr. Parnassus may be an immortal who is easily tempted into making bets with the devil, but Dr. Faustus he’s not. Everyone who hitches a ride with him takes a chance with the Imaginarium must make the choice between his own imagination and his most base desires.
It’s tempting to say that Tony and Dr. Parnassus are cinematic stand-ins for the late lead actor and the director, and that all film-making is one long con. Perhaps its a cheap sort of insight to say that Dr. Parnassus’ dilemma is merely a metaphor for Terry Gilliam’s lifelong struggle to tell the stories he wants vis-a-vis the compromise that Hollywood producers always demand from him.
It’s obvious that he’s contemplating the delicate balancing act between telling the tale or letting the devil do it for you. But whether he feels that the greed trumps imagination, I have no idea. Perhaps Gilliam doesn’t know the answer to that either.
As much as I thoroughly enjoyed most of The Imaginarium, the sharp shift of focus at the end felt slightly unsatisfying. Gilliam is not known for clear-cut happy endings, but I feel it might have ended differently if Ledger was around to film the original ending. I would love to read of the script before the rewrites — perhaps they’d put the old storyboards in the DVD release? — to see if I’m right, or just suffering from a very retro desire for Aristotelian dramatic structure.