Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is another stunning but remarkably odd film from ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam. Gilliam, famous for blurring the boundaries of what his protagonist and the audience perceive as real and what is dream or imagination, in this film revolves the plot around a carnival sideshow that allows a customer to enter an imaginary world full of their wildest fantasies. Gilliam, whose resume includes the cult classics Brazil (1985), The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995) and an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), described the premise of the film as a "fun and humorous story about the consequences of our personal choices in life”.
Set during a seemingly hostile 21st Century London, a world where the idea of the imagination overwhelms the average person, The Imaginarium is fueled by the brilliant 1000 year old Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) when he enters a trance. During his immortal existence, Parnassus has made a number of deals with a man we know to be called Mr Nick (a symbol of the Devil or darkness), played superbly and with great fun by Tom Waits. Nick bestowed upon Parnassus this incredible power to curve the imagination of an individual, and he comes to collect his debt. In order to stop him from taking away his young daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) when she ages to sixteen, Parnassus must lure five souls to the path of light when customers enter the Imaginarium, with Nick attempting to lure them to the path of darkness.
Unfortunately the traveling show is in disrepair, is continually hounded by the law, and is not attracting customers, and with just three days before Valentina’s birthday, Parnassus begins to fear the worst. By chance they meet the mysterious Tony (played by Heath Ledger in the final role before his death), who helps Parnassus to modernize the Imaginarium and through his natural charismatic charm, begins to attract customers into the show. In several outstanding visual sequences, Tony's character accompanies women into the Imaginarium and presents them the path of light, while Nick appears to lure them into darkness. With Ledger’s premature death halting production, his role is cleverly recast for several key sequences and we see Johnny Depp (superb), Jude Law and finally Colin Farrell portray a physically altered version of his character inside the Imaginarium. Once the secret of Tony's former occupation is revealed and the reasons behind his pursuit are discovered by Anton (another employee of Dr Parnassus) the film becomes even more complex. While Tony is fueled by a desire to escape capture and to save Parnassus' daughter, Anton’s desire is to not only win back Valentina but through his jealousy reveal Tony’s secret. The trio enters the Imaginarium together and the film begins to spiral wildly out-of-control.
The conclusion is every bit as intriguing and frustratingly complicated as that of Gilliam's earlier masterpiece, Brazil, with nothing what is seems. Gilliam was faced with a massive problem with Ledger’s death, and while far from perfect the final cut is a remarkable work. Ledger delivers a quality performance, while Depp is certainly the best of the supporting roles. In true Gilliam fashion, this is a wild, visually spectacular and oddly hilarious ride.

Overall: 3 1/2 Stars

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