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Jan 14, 2010

Fletch's Film Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

"I think there are going to be moments in Parnassus; I’m just waiting to hear what the audience does when they see certain shots. There are lines that we refused to change after Heath died. It’s like the script was prescient. It’s really spooky."

"Not every movie has a magic mirror." - Terry Gilliam to Times Online

Like it or not, the death of Heath Ledger will cast a permanent shadow over The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Not since Brandon Lee's death while filming 1994's The Crow have we seen a death that impacted a film quite so much. Of course, stars and not-quite-stars die at a young age all too often in and around Hollywood, from River Phoenix to Brad Renfro to Marilyn Monroe. But what kind of cruel twist of fate does it take for them to be taken while filming their character's death, as was the case with Lee? Ledger's Tony may not share the same fate as Lee's had, but you'll know from the first time you see Ledger on screen to the last that a similarly bizarre set of circumstances was at play for the filming of Parnassus.

It's hard to tell whether or not the nostalgia brought on by seeing Ledger will help or hinder the image of Imaginarium in the long term. There are certainly some difficult scenes to watch (as Gilliam references above), yet there are also plenty of bittersweet ones, and you can't help but think that, if this had to happen, it's serendipitous that it should happen under Terry Gilliam's watch. Who else might have had not only the past experience with him (on 2005's The Brothers Grimm), but also with at least one of his former friends (Johnny Depp), who in turn no doubt was instrumental in bringing along two other of Ledger's friends (Jude Law and Colin Ferrell) to assist in portraying the fallen star's character in his final film. And what other movie might have had that "magic mirror" and (apparently) just the right amount of existing footage to edit the film so seamlessly and beautifully that you'd never know just from watching the movie that Ledger was deceased?

I don't yet know how much the emotional baggage has clouded my judgement of Parnassus, and I assume I won't know for some time - perhaps a second or third of fourth viewing some six years from now. Try as I might have upon entering to extricate the knowledge of his passing, the content of the film all but blows that notion out of the water. Ultimately, I hope it doesn't matter. Tragedy or no, Gilliam has made an excellent film.

As with just about every other film he's made, this is a bit like the tale of the tortoise and the hare. Gilliam is the hare and the viewer is the tortoise, with he and his ambitious, fantasy-laden mind getting off to a grand head start over you as you attempt to comprehend what's taking place on screen. A ragtag group of colorful characters is introduced to you all at once, and you haven't the foggiest idea of what they're up to. But you slowly catch up to the hare, as the storyteller finally relents a bit and shows you a bit behind the curtain, doling out the back story of Doctor Parnassus, his daughter, and a little devil named Mr. Nick, deliciously played by Tom Waits in one of my favorite performances of the year.

I'd rather not divulge the details of this diversion; there are a few messages to take away from Parnassus - be careful what you wish for, the danger of secrecy, gambling is bad - but I was never in real fear for the character's outcomes, and none is as important as the fashion in which Gilliam unravels the tale. A victory for style over substance, perhaps, but that's only because there's just so damn much style.

Fletch's Film Rating:
"It's in the hole!"

Shaky Cam Rating (details):LAMBScore:
Large Association of Movie BlogsLarge Association of Movie Blogs

5 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

Univarn said...

I really want to see this but for every good review there's a negative! Ah so many decisions!

Franco Macabro said...

Loved the movie as well, but I disagree with you in the style over matter bit. I thought it had many themes within its storyline, and was just as heavy as it was visually rich.

Check out my review and see what you think:


Fletch said...

Univarn - I'll need to seek out these naysayers and set them straight. I'd say your enjoyment hinges most largely on what you think of Gilliam's previous works. Seeing this made me most regret that I haven't seen his last two (Grimm and Tideland - I hadn't even heard of the latter. How the hell did that happen?).

Conno - I'm certainly not calling it a loss in the story or themes department, but I do feel that Gilliam's visual style of storytelling overshadows it somewhat. Will definitely check out your review.

By the way, you ought to be a LAMB...

The Film Cynics said...

Despite the fact that we had the ultimate in high stakes gambling with none other than the Devil, there was no sense of jeopardy. Tom Waits just kept giving Parny chance after chance (possibly because of script rewrites) so the film lacked a real sense of crisis if there was no consequence to losing a bet. The Devil just kept stretching things out and out and out.

This isn't an outright loss for Gilliam, but it definitely can't be a win for him. Better luck next time, Terry.

Fletch said...

Steve - I can agree with the point about the lack of jeopardy. Waits' devil was an awfully kind one. I recognized that, but it didn't bother me all that much. I guess I figured that he was/would be bored without a rival like Parnassus to play around with.