The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Let me tell you about a sweet deal I’ve for for you …

Golden Mug

Director (Terry Gilliam)
Art Direction (Anastasia Masarao and Terry Gilliam)
Costume Design (Monique Prudhomme)

Theatrical Release Date: 01/08/2010
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Sadly, the most brilliant and creative people often find themselves faced with the more unusual and difficult obstacles in life. Such is often the case with Terry Gilliam’s films: For example, a studio/distributor not agreeing with what version of a film should be released (“Brazil”), a collection of bizarre setbacks force a production to stop (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, told in a great 2002 doc “Lost in La Mancha” and these days Gilliam is trying to resurrect the project) or in the case of his newest film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, a key actor’s death (Heath Ledger).

Thankfully, for audiences and critics alike, Gilliam was convinced to finish the production and, in some ways, being forced to rewrite the film and Ledger’s part lent a richer spin to the character and a better overall film result. The premise is that Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has made a deal with Mr. Nick (an alias for the Devil played by Tom Waits) for immortality. The catch to such a prize is that should Parnassus ever have a daughter, she would become Mr. Nick’s property upon her sixteenth birthday which, as it so happens, is fast approaching when the film opens.

Parnassus and his not so merry traveling theatre troupe purport to deliver a transcendent, otherworldly experience to their audience and do so via a magic mirror (no, not like Romper Room). When people enter the mirror, they are transported to a world of their own imagination, where they can do and be anyone they want – either striving to become better people (Parnassus’ path) or succumbing to their base desires (the Devil’s highway so to speak). And because he’s such a sporting fellow, Mr. Nick agrees to a new wager with Parnassus that could provide for his daughter’s freedom and it’s a race to convert five souls to the side of good or evil.

This element of the magic mirror was the key to Gilliam rewriting Ledger’s character, as each time he steps through the looking glass he is transformed into another actor (and because the scenes in front of the mirror had already been shot, it allowed Ledger’s performance to remain untouched, not needing any trickery to pull off the reworked script). Playing the parts behind the mirror, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all stepped up to the plate (donating their salaries to Ledger’s young daughter) and not only give good performances but add interesting layers to the character. Each are a different segment of the character’s psyche and their scenes play out beautifully.

Plummer and Waits, although they aren’t always at the forefront of the action, are the two figures locked in a timeless series of wagers, trying to outwit each other and causing the story to unfold. Both give wonderful performances and create truly interesting and charismatic characters. Plummer’s ability to be so believable as an almost all-knowing mystic who doesn’t see the trees for the forest (yes, I meant it that way) is impressive – just as Waits’ unique take on what the Devil should be like adds such a fun spin to the production which helps to keep things fresh on yet another mad ride that Gilliam is presenting to audiences.

Not to be outdone, the troupe members all give standout performances as well. Verne Troyer’s portrayal of Parnassus’ faithful assistant/wagon driver/confidant/actor is his best work ever. He is the common sense to the good doctor’s wild imagination and tries admirably to keep him in check. As Parnassus’ daughter Valentina, model Lily Cole shows that she’s not just a striking face but also a talented actress. Her character balances childlike wonder with the wisdom of a woman beyond her years and takes it upon herself to be the glue of the makeshift family. Andrew Garfield, not so subtly in love with Valentina, is the youthful brawn of the group and does an excellent job of playing lovesick puppy as well as jilted and jealous sad sack when Ledger’s character enters the fray as a mysterious stranger purportedly with no memory.

To go along with the actors, everyone else in the production gave it their all as well, from cinematographer Nicola Pecorini to production designer Anastasia Masaro, costumer designer Monique Prudhomme and composers Jeff and Mychael Danna. The film is a marvel to look at and experience, managing to bring something as intangible as imagination to the screen – all of which is a credit to those in front of and behind the cameras.

If there are negatives to the film, they perhaps come more from personal preference than any fault of Gilliam or his crew. Gilliam’s use of master shots (wide angles) is one of his trademarks and while it allows for a much broader view of the fantastical elements of the film, I often find that shooting that way leads to rather static scenes from an action standpoint, which leads to pacing issues. Also, because the film is truly an ensemble piece and each character undergoes significant development, trying to remain focused on any particular element seemed overly difficult – the energy of the production seemed to flag and I often found myself wondering if the next obstacle in the characters’ path was going to be the last or it would just unfold a new set of problems.

While the execution of the story didn’t necessarily pull me in, the excellent acting, beautiful production design and sheer imagination of Gilliam and his team rate “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” a 4 out of 5. Although Ledger left this world far too soon, it’s deeply satisfying to see that his last film isn’t something to feel sorry about (Raul Julia in “Street Fighter” comes to mind) and how clear it is in watching this the level of respect and admiration Gilliam and company pay to Heath’s excellent farewell performance.