By Brian Lafferty
January 12, 2009 (San Diego’s East County)--While watching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus I could not help but remember a film with elements similar to it. That film would be The City of Lost Children, a 1995 French film co-directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) and Marc Caro. Like The City of Lost Children, Doctor Parnassus contains eccentric characters (in both physical appearance and personality), lush cinematography and set design, and an interesting narrative that is barely coherent yet rewarding at the same time. I loved it.
The movie begins with the hasty introduction of Doctor Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer) sideshow. The sideshow is made up of several weird characters. One of them is Percy, a dwarf (Verne Troyer of Austin Powers fame) who dresses up in weird costumes including, to my shock and surprise, in blackface. Rounding out the cast is Parnassus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and Anton (Andrew Garfield) whose act involves dressing as the Roman God Mercury and introducing the show. Anton is in love with Valentina but she doesn’t reciprocate.
It is revealed that Parnassus is thousands of years old, the result of a wager he made the Devil himself (Tom Waits) and learning he had been tricked. After rescuing Tony (Heath Ledger), an amnesiac stranger who apparently attempted suicide, the Devil makes another bet with Parnassus: five souls in two days or else he loses his daughter whom he has come to collect as a result of another deal. Parnassus then enlists the aid of Tony, who turns out to have dark secrets, in acquiring those five souls using the Mirror. The Mirror is a device which allows those who enter it to literally enter a world of their own imagination, guided by Parnassus.
Doctor Parnassus is a beautiful mess. It may sound like a negative way to describe it but it’s not. It contains flashbacks, scenes set in the mirror that are visually sumptuous, a third act that is wild and unravels at an alarming rate, among other things. The story was barely coherent but I loved the challenge. The film engaged me in ways that many pictures don’t. Rather than spoon-feeding us everything at the beginning, Doctor Parnassus lets the story build slowly and the mysteries slowly reveal themselves. Even toward the very end I learned new things about the characters. I love movies that make me think and this picture worked on that level.
The cinematography and set design are spellbinding in both the mirror and the real world. The real world is dingy and has a beautiful garishness. My favorite moments of the film were those set in the Mirror. In one scene a woman imagines an undersea world full of gigantic high-heel shoes and perfume bottles. She and Tony (played by Johnny Depp taking over Ledger’s role in this sequence) ride on a lily pad that takes them up the water, encountering jellyfish and other sea creatures, and into what looks like the Egyptian desert. What I loved is that Gilliam went full force in these scenes; on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most visually striking, these sequences would get a ten. My only gripe, although it’s a small one, is I wanted to see more of them.
Another treat for those familiar with director Terry Gilliam’s films and previous work are the small references peppered throughout. Some of the visual effects like the statue with the tongue rolling out Red Carpet-style look like the Monty Python animations (also done by Gilliam) created using 3D software. In the scene with the revamped sideshow, Lily Cole is dressed like the goddess Venus, who was played by Uma Thurman in Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The performances in this film are top-notch. Ledger’s last performance is great, although nowhere near the caliber of his previous Oscar-winning role as the Joker in 2008. That doesn’t mean the supporting cast is overmatched. The remaining ensemble cast, to my surprise, enhances the picture with equally exceptional acting. Verne Troyer is funny as the dwarf who orders everyone around. Lily Cole exudes a powerful innocence in her character, Valentina. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell at first look odd in their scenes in the Imaginarium (having taken over for Ledger, who died before completing those scenes) and the reasons for the changes in appearance aren’t made clear. Regardless, I was able to buy it once I got used to it.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fun movie. It’s not one of the best movies of 2009 but it knows what it is and what it wants to accomplish and it does it well. Some scenes, which I will not reveal, reeked of irony considering the fate of its late star. It didn’t diminish my appreciation in any way. In fact I don’t look at Doctor Parnassus as a eulogy. Instead, I view it as a celebration, a film that succeeded despite death of its star and, through the efforts of Gilliam, the cast, and crew delivered a thoroughly entertaining film.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director: Terry Gilliam. Screenplay: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Original Music: Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna. Cinematography: Nicola Pecorini. Cast: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG-13.