A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 343 – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – February 6th, 2011

Going into this movie tonight all I really knew about it was that it was directed by Terry Gilliam and was the movie Heath Ledger never got to finish filming for. That was pretty much it. I didn’t know the plot. I didn’t know most of the rest of the cast. I didn’t know much of anything about it. Just that it was Gilliam, and that there had been some fancy footwork done to fill Ledger’s role and make it work. That’s not much to go on. And to be honest, it’s left me feeling much like I often do at the end of a Gilliam movie: Like I get most of it, but also that it’s wrapped up in so much of Gilliam’s own mind, there’s a huge gap between me and it and I just can’t seem to cross it.

I like a good deal of the concept of the movie, with the power of imagination being a driving force. Of course, that would resonate strongly for someone like Terry Gilliam, whose imagination is fevered at the very least. But I would think that for anyone who enjoys creating something, trying to get others to see the power of imagination is a big deal. I know even in my line of work, which is more as a guide than a creator, I love watching people discover imaginary worlds. And so the conceit of the movie, the Imaginarium of the title, is a wondrous thing to me, as it should be. It’s a lovely concept, though not really entirely original. It’s a gateway that brings people into a world born of their own imaginations. Perhaps in other works it hasn’t been done through a mylar curtain in a travelling stage show, but it’s been done. The thing is, as realized in this movie, it’s done very well, so it doesn’t matter much to me that the concept feels familiar.

Really, I think a lot of the movie depends on the concepts feeling familiar. It draws on trope after trope, reference after reference. All of the stage shows the little troupe puts on seem to be referring back to classical works in some way. They’re a cross between the troupe in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And, in fact, I’m fairly certain at least one line was intended to be referential to Stoppard – When one character asks another where they are, the response is “Geographically speaking, in the Northern Hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. And narratively, with some way to go.” Which really, come on. That could have been straight out of The Player’s mouth. And that’s not a complaint. I like all the homage built into the movie. It suits it.

The main plot revolves around this traveling stage show, which features the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The good Doctor himself is an older man who sits on stage and says very little. The rest of the troupe – Valentina (his daughter), Anton and Percy all try to entice viewers to buy a ticket and go through a silver-curtained ‘mirror’ at the back of the stage. And it all looks like trickery, until you go through the mirror and find that inside is a whole fantastical world that is whatever you make it. Then, through a story Parnassus tells Valentina, we learn that the Imaginarium is part of a deal he made with the devil, to try and win the most souls. He tries to entice them to his side – the side of imagination – and the devil tries to entice them to damnation instead.

Complicating everything is Tony, a schemer and human monkey wrench, thrown into it all to muck things up. Tony is a curious figure in the movie, playing a sort of catalyst for action while being both good and bad in the overall morality of the movie. He shows up, helps out the show, tries to save Valentina, then seduces Valentina, turns out to be an utter scoundrel in his regular life and then he tries to cheat death. Every good thing he does is tempered by something bad. He swings back and forth in terms of motive and action and comes up somewhat to the evil side of neutral (the nastier stuff he seems to have done isn’t quite balanced out by helping to save four souls in my opinion). But there he is, making things happen by being there and being himself.

By the time you know what’s really going on and what’s at stake, the movie has given you a good look at each of the characters. You know that Parnassus is a fairly good man who really needs to lay off the betting and the booze. You know that Valentina desperately wants to be allowed to make her own choices and build her own life – and one of my major criticisms of the movie would be that regardless of whether she does or not in the end, she’s still basically a pawn in the whole game between Parnassus and the devil and her agency is not her own. You know that Anton is mad about Valentina and doesn’t know how to go about wooing her. You know Percy is intensely sarcastic but also intensely loyal to Parnassus, regardless of what’s going on. And you know that Tony is somewhat self-serving, more than a little smarmy, and doesn’t have a problem with lying. And I like that they’re all given enough to work with that they’re characters, not caricatures. I will take this moment to compliment the cast, because Christopher Plummer is fantastic as Parnassus, I loved Lily Cole as Valentina, I truly felt for Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Anton and Verne Troyer as Percy totally stole most of his scenes.

The story itself works nicely up until the climax. The deal between Parnassus and the devil, Valentina and the two potential suitors, the struggling show and the troupe’s attempts to get an audience at all. It’s well done. And the trips into the Imaginarium are fantastic. Tony – played by Heath Ledger in all of the real world scenes – changes faces with each trip in, transforming into the person whoever he’s with wants him to be. While this was clearly written in after Ledger’s death so that Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell could step in, I think it plays well into the character of Tony being difficult to pin down. But then the climax happens, and suddenly we have Valentina and Tony together, and Valentina having to choose who to go with, and the revelation of Tony’s past and he’s got a mob after him and Anton disappears for a while and Percy disappears completely and it all gets very messy very quickly. Like Gilliam had a lot more story to tell and had to wrap it up faster than he wanted to.

It’s a tricky movie, I think. As I said, it’s full of homage and reference and it’s doing some nicely classical things in a new way. But it’s also very stylized, and it’s messy near the end and I honestly don’t think Colin Farrell is up to the same level as the rest of the cast, which makes the climax even more difficult, since it hinges so much on Tony and he’s Tony’s player at that point. And I’m just not sure that the ending ties everything together well enough. The very last bit is nicely done, I think. But the climax sort of makes me cock my head. And once again I feel like I started out really getting the point and then Gilliam lost me by trying to do too much. He created something huge and then didn’t find a way to get me across it. Still, that something huge is lovely to behold, even if I can’t quite see all of it the way he does.

February 6, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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