The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam) 2009

It’s strange that although I don’t think highly of Gilliam I have seen all of his movies. You would think I would figure out by now I’m setting myself up for failure but I dunno. It’s just, even with Gilliam’s best movies, I see them as being great but not the masterpieces fans tout them to be. I will give him all the credit in the world for being visually inventive and one of the most imaginative directors out there, but that doesn’t change the fact I think he has big deficiencies as a storyteller. So why did I think Imaginarium would be any different? I didn’t. My girlfriend made me watch this.

The story is very muddled and confusing but this is as clear a synopsis I can give. The devil (Tom Waits) has had this relationship through the ages with this kind of master mentalist named Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). They have a series of bets as to who can claim the most souls. Parnassus wins immortality but realizes its not all its cracked up to be. So he makes another deal where he gets back mortality with the condition any child he has, the devil will claim its soul on the 16th birthday. Parnassus has a daughter and to save her life, he makes another bet with the devil. The first with five souls wins her life. Along the way, Parnassus runs across a mysterious stranger with amnesia (Heath Ledger) who wants to help him.

As I said, this story is very murky. I personally found it funny that at the 50 minute mark, even Tony (Ledger) had to sit the characters down and ask basically what the f*ck is going on. So, Parnassus has this magic mirror that people go through and it transports them to the person’s manifestation of his/her imagination. There they encounter a choice between Parnassus and the devil. These are the most simplistic choices ever presented to people and it makes you wonder where the devil got his rep as a master of lies. Take for example a boozer who goes through and is presented with the choice of climbing an endless mountain of stairs or having a drink at a bar. Stuff in this movie is just not all that clear though. What happens if Parnassus wins the soul? What do they really gain? Why do people stay with Parnassus? Why does the devil have such an interest in Parnassus? If the devil is really in this world but no other mythological agents, what kind of theology are we working from here? What ARE the devil’s motives? Why do they want souls? Why is this the easiest way to get souls? I could go on but you get the picture. I can understand Gilliam trying to tell the audience to just roll with the story and not dig too deep but he sabotages himself by making everything so mysterious. Gilliam intentionally keeps all the characters mum supposedly to build up suspense and the mystery but all he ends up doing is frustrating me with unclear answers. There are also the truly bizarre moments like when we get a song and dance number from a group of cross dressing police men. This seems to be an attempt to go back to his Monty Python days, but in this context it is so out of left field that it derails the movie instead of helping it.

I also find the characters to be patently unlikable. Parnassus is the worst person of all. For one, he is someone so rock stupid that he constantly makes bets with THE DEVIL and is surprised when he finds out the devil is not entirely on the up and up. Everyone join me here in saying…DDUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHH!!! Not to mention the fact Parnassus is putting peoples eternal souls at risk for his own personal gain. In some cases, people are forced into the mirror and they end up being taken by the devil. It also says something that Parnassus doesn’t try to help people in making this test. I can maybe understand not making the choice for the person, but Parnassus doesn’t help the person at all with what is going on. It is like throwing someone in the middle of the Atlantic to teach them how to swim. Without even a little guidance, it is not surprising he loses so many souls to the devil. The other characters are no better. Anton is supposed to be the romantic lead, but he comes out as insecure, jealous, ineffectual, and at times creepy. And as if we needed to up the annoying factor, we have Vern Troyer in this movie. Now he is not getting raped by monkeys, but he is still annoying. Also, characters go through mood swings and drastic changes in character. Parnassus is a drunk, but now he’s not, now he is a basket case, now he is a resilient spirit, etc.

I have been ignoring talking about Ledger because that is what most people have been sidetracked by in their reviews of the material. Most of the viewer reviews I have read are solely dedicated to talking about this being a testament to Ledger and how moving it was to see him in this last performance and how haunting it is etc etc. I understand Gilliam loved Ledger and he was trying to honor him, but in a way he sabotaged the movie as a whole. This is now the focal point of the movie. This is what people will always see and view the movie as. I’m not talking about the morality of this or saying what Gilliam did was wrong, but this movie is no longer the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; this is the Heath Ledger Memorial Film. He has let real life undermine whatever story he was trying to tell with this. Ledger isn’t even the main character of this movie. The scenes where he enters the Imaginarium is taken up by cameos by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. And to be fair, Farrell actually does the best work despite the limited screen time. Although that is not so say Depp couldn’t also have been good if they just re-shot the Ledger footage with Depp.

The movie is beautiful to look at, especially the Imaginarium scenes. The acting is overall good and Waits absolutely steals every scene he is in. Once again this fits into Gilliam’s strengths/weaknesses of having a ton of imagination (no joke intended) but crippling storytelling problems. In the end, I was more frustrated than enchanted by this movie.

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One Response to “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam) 2009”

  1. TrangleC Says:

    A very good review.
    I can’t comment much on the other ones, since i haven’t seen most of the movies reviewed, but reading the Moses reviews is still entertaining and informative.
    Thanks.

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