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Imagination Brought to Life in ‘Parnassus’

Nick Anderson | Monday, January 25, 2010

It’s not easy for Terry Gilliam to make a movie — something invariably goes wrong.
From studio squabbling over budgets, to actors dropping out, Gilliam holds a wonderful series of failures, including two attempts at “Watchmen,” as well as the infamous “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” Regardless, every couple of years a studio gives him $30 million to make a movie and expects about $60 million in return.

It’s actually rather surprising this happens time and time again. Gilliam makes sprawling, dark, moody movies that are more often than not confusing, sloppy and overstuffed with ideas. In place of a well-executed movie, he delivers a film that is a glimpse into the world that he lives in, one almost entirely unlike our own. Regarding the plot holes, weak characters and hectic pacing, the fault lies with the audience for not fully understanding his world; the details all exist in his mind.

In “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Gilliam lets us further into his mind than ever before. It’s a cluttered place, populated by dwarves, monks, unruly drunks, misplaced ruffians, societal fringes, dreams, nightmares and piles of rubbish. While you’re never quite comfortable with all that you can see, you’re more than welcome to have a look around.
Although he’s explored it many times before, Gilliam once again is obsessed with humanity. The flaws, desires, weaknesses, temptations and most importantly the elegant hope of the human condition are pushed and prodded, examined and dissected. Through the masterfully constructed plot device of the Imaginarium, Gilliam is able to transform the human mind into a very real place, where desires are embodied in a brightly animated reality, but deals with the devil are followed by a handshake.

The film tells the story of Doctor Parnassus, a former monk, once a protector of the existence of the universe, as he travels through modern-day London leading his motley crew of four in their attempts to entertain and enlighten an unreceptive audience. Parnassus, his confidant Percy, his daughter Valentina, and her suitor Anton, run the shabby but powerful Imaginarium, which opens to another dimension, where the visitor is confronted with a choice between paths of light and darkness. In their travels, they find Tony, a man being chased by mobsters, hanging by his neck beneath a bridge. Tony, it seems, is a Godsend, helping Parnassus in his contest with Mr. Nick, a devilish creature, to see who can gather five souls first. If Parnassus wins, he continues his life of immortality; if Mr. Nick wins, he takes Parnassus’ daughter.

The plot is every bit as cumbersome as it seems, but it’s well managed across the narrative arc. Several scenes seem written purely to facilitate a beautiful shot at the expense of real development, but the majesty of the visuals make up for this more often than not. The characters, while not fully fleshed out, and despite their overwhelming personality traits, manage to narrowly avoid becoming parodies.

Gilliam’s most underrated talent is easily his ability to coax incredible performances out of his actors despite any script weaknesses. He again does so in the impressive performances of Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger and Tom Waits. The efforts of each actor are well appreciated, and Waits delivers a surprisingly suave and astute performance as the satanic Mr. Nick, displaying the same brilliance that was found in his role in Coppola’s “Dracula.” Ledger, whose death halted production, is replaced at different times by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. Considering the circumstances, the transition is well done but Depp and Law both seem to struggle to understand the mind of the character, while Farrell, despite a period of isolation from Hollywood, gives an outstanding performance.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” will no doubt divide audiences. Its faults are evident and easily critiqued, but a movie about humanity would struggle without significant flaws. Those who are forgiving of its weaknesses will be rewarded with a strange trip into an even stranger mind.