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Dear ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’….at least you got the ‘ass’ part right



Ah, Terry Gilliam, it’s always at least a hell of a ride.  After leaving this rental sitting near the DVD player for over a month, I finally got up the gumption to take a run through Gilliam’s latest gigantic weirdity, The Imagination of Doctor Parnassus – or, ‘the one where Heath Ledger died in the middle of filming but they finished it anyway’. 

I have a spotty history with Gilliam – Love, love, love The Fisher King, big fan of what he did with Twelve Monkeys, and I’ve long had a soft spot for the underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, though a recent re-watch maybe left a little to be desired.  However, I’ve never much understood all the fuss about Brazil, and more recent offerings have left me feeling more ‘meh’ than anything (I don’t think I ever got through all The Brothers Grimm) 

In the end, I’m always a sucker for giving him another shot, though.  I think because he was more or less Tim Burton before Tim Burton was just allowed to do whatever the hell he wanted to ostensibly because he has compromising photos of Johnny Depp…and because Gilliam has proven he can tell a big, grand, classically influenced story very well when reigned in. 

This is about how I felt watching this thing.

Parnassus is not one of those cases.  Let’s begin with this:  in the broad daylight, well-rested, fully caffeinated, I fell asleep for fifteen minutes about half-an-hour into this two-hour endurance test.  And when I awoke, I HADN’T MISSED A THING.  It took an entire hour to get to what the story is actually about, and that’s some sort of weakly proposed mythical storyteller (Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer) and his now-due debt to the Devil (Tom Waits).  Let’s review that quick – I am fully NOT enjoying a movie in which Tom Waits plays the Devil.  I’d have previously thought that not possible, so chalk that up in the ‘surprise’ column. 

Ledger plays a character named Tony that Parnassus foresees via Tarot Cards or some such malarkey, found hanging under a bridge – but not dead, thanks to a magical metal flute-thing that he jammed into his throat before being hung by the Russian mob.   See how this is quickly losing focus?  So they save him, nurse him back to health, and he joins up with Parnassus’ traveling minstrel show that is prone to ‘performing’ outside of pubs to drunkards in hopes of convincing one or two to take a trip into Doc P’s magic mirror, where Parnassus creates a reality, or dreamscape, or something that ‘saves their soul’.  It is this magic-mirror world of the fantastic that allowed Gilliam to finish the movie after Ledger’s demise, as Tony’s journey into the subconscious allows the character to be played by Jude Law (echh.), Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp (who, in one smirk, effectively portrays the all-too-evident knowledge that he’d rather be doing the whole thing himself, with Burton.  But I doubt that would have helped).  For the record, it might not have been the best call to have the characters in the movie actually call out that clearly the dream-Tonys aren’t the same person.  Distracting. 

The set-pieces and special effects in this are great, beyond great, really.  It’s just that the story is slim, and the overall execution sloppy and dull.  Let’s go back to the beginning, here….the actual interesting parts of this whole conceit don’t even start showing up until half-way through, because Gilliam spends too much goddamn time with exposition and back story that could have been summarized in fifteen minutes, tops (and, regrettably, I found the same general fault with Munchausen when I revisited it).  It’s like driving in first gear for an our, then jamming it into fifth the rest of the way….pacing, man, try some pacing.  And all the pretty effects in the world can’t make up for that kind of fault, particularly not when the attempt is made on such a grand scale……it’s this Achilles’ Heel that TG shares in spades with Burton in the last decade, and ultimately what sinks this mess of a film. 

That, or maybe the decision to cast Verne Troyer in a significant dialogue-heavy part.  Ah, Mini-Me, you’re always more effective with less talking. 

Regardless how I break it apart, I can’t give The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus any more than a 3 out of 7, mostly for the great-looking animation and sets, and the valid attempt at making a tough situation (with Ledger’s death) work.  The third star is because Waits does nail the Devil part spectacularly.  For the most part, avoid this, unless you’re obsessed with weird-for-weird’s-sake.  Or have been drinking paint thinner for the better part of a day.

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