An imagination emporium, a deal with the Devil and the last film made by Heath Ledger are all a draw to the creative genius of filmmaker Terry Gilliam in his latest opus, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”
Terry Gilliam, win, lose or draw, has, from his early days as animator for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” television series, has always marched to his own beat. He has created darkly funny satire with “Brazil,” whimsical fantasy adventure in “Time Bandits” and a big budget box office flop with “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” He is no stranger to experimentation with his works and his latest is a solid expression of the man’s creative mind and imagination.
Heath Ledger died during the filming of “Doctor Parnassus,” forcing Gilliam to rethink how to manage the film’s completion without its star. The result is in two parts. The first is earthly bound and in the present as the good doctor and his loyal troupe – daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer) – ply their trade bringing Doc P’s fabulous Imaginarium to the public.
While traveling between performances, the band of entertainers comes upon the body of a man hanging from a bridge. Risking life and limb, Anton rescues the man who is still alive. Unfortunately, he suffers from amnesia and remembers nothing of his past, even his name. Valentina dubs him George (Heath Ledger) and he joins the band, presenting ideas on how to make the Imaginarium a money making venture. Meanwhile, George discovers that his real name is Tony and the law is pursuing him.
When Tony entices wealthy women to enter the Imaginarium to experience the reality of imagination, the show is a hit, garnering the wealth and fame that Tony promised. This is where “Doctor Parnassus” shifts gears as it enters the fantasy realm, where Tony woos his admirers into their imagination-bound world. Replacing Ledger proved a tough task and Gilliam calls upon three actors to fill the void. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step in to play Tony in the imagination fantasies and the result is the creative genius of the filmmaker.
Gilliam and co-scribe Charles McKeown also throw in the tale of a deal with the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waites) who, centuries ago, made a wager with Doctor P. The two battled wits over the ensuing hundreds of years until Parnassus sees the woman, much younger, of his dreams. He makes another deal with Mr. Nick, give him youth and love and he will give up his first-born to the Devil on the baby’s 16th birthday. This adds an amusing development, well played between Plummer and Waites, as they do battle over Valentina’s soul.
Acting is good all around with Plummer having a banner, at age 80, with his memorable perfs in “Imaginarium,” “The Last Station” as Leo Tolstoy, and the voice of the villain in “Up.” Not bad for an octogenarian thespian. Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer do yeomen’s work as the appealing band of traveling entertainers and the troika of Depp, Law and Farrell fill in well with their cameos as Tony. Heath Ledger is fun, though creeped me out as Tony fondles the not-yet-sixteen-year-old Valentina.
Artistically, “Imaginarium” exudes the influence of its creator, both in real world and fantasy. Lenser Nicola Pecorini, art directors Dan Hermansen and Denis Schnegg, production designer Anastasia Masaro and the rest of the creative behind-the-camera crew ably support him as they bring Gilliam’s vision to the screen.
The combination of the four Tonys – one in the physical world, the other three in the mind – shows Gilliam’s ability to think on his feet and overcome personal and professional loss with his art. I give it a B+.
In modern London, a centuries old carriage stops randomly to present sixteenth century style entertainment. The very old man (Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station") who runs the show is carrying a great weight - a deal he with Mr. Nick (singer/songwriter Tom Waits, "Wristcutters: A Love Story") for youth in immortality is about to come due on the sixteenth birthday of his only daughter, Valentina (sweetheart faced Lily Cole, "St. Trinian's"). His herald, Anton (Andrew Garfield, "Boy A"), who has loved her from afar, must try to seduce five souls before his boss's newest player Tony (Heath Ledger, "Brokeback Mountain," "The Brothers Grimm"), in order to win her within "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
Cowriter (with Charles McKeown)/director Terry Gilliam's ("Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen") latest film has become well known as Heath Ledger's last film, and the director was determined to preserve Ledger's last performance. Thankfully, his script allowed for different actors to replace the actor within his Imaginarium, and that's just where Johnny Depp ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), Jude Law ("Sherlock Holmes") and Colin Farrell ("In Bruges," "Crazy Heart") came in to save the film from the fate of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" a decade earlier (Gilliam is once again at work on that film). Gilliam's not had the easiest directing career, but challenges appear to suit him as "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," while flawed, is his best film in quite some time.
On a snowy Christmas Eve, Martin (Richard Riddell), a passerby who's had way too much to drink makes a play for Valentina and is pushed into the on stage mirror that is the gateway to the Imaginarium. Anton follows, his first time within the fanciful Imaginarium, and ensures his fate - Martin never comes out again and the authorities are apparently satisfied that the young man simply wandered off through the back of the stage.
Parnassus is not pleased that a member of his own troupe has entered and we learn the old man's history. As a mystic monk from the mountains of Asia, Parnassus was challenged by Mr. Nick and his entirely different philosophy to come up with twelve disciples before he did. Parnassus won and the wager gained him his immortality (Parnassus and Mr. Nick are paralleled to Christ and the Devil throughout the film, and yet the two seem more like interdependent old buddies, a nice touch). Mr. Nick, though, likes to keep the game afoot and routinely counters a wager with a new spin, so when Parnassus met the love of his life and desired to stop aging, Mr. Nick was at the ready. Meanwhile, as Percy (Verne Troyer, "Austin Powers's" Mini Me) drives their carriage towards the bridge, he spies a man dancing on the water. It's Valentina who figures out the figure is hung beneath the bridge, and with Anton's help, they reel in Tony, kept alive by having swallowed his brass whistle. Tony appears to want to help Parnassus with his show and his newest wager to keep his daughter, but his story seems to keep changing and Anton agonizes on the sidelines.
Gilliam's last films have been disappointing, to say the least. "Tideland" was barely recognizable as a Gilliam film, "The Brothers Grimm" was anemic and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" went off the rails, so it's been since 1995's "12 Monkeys" since Gilliam's been in his stride. Now "The Imaginarium" does peter out in the end - it's perhaps too ambitious in telling too many stories - but visually it pops, its cast is terrific and the director's retrofitting of Ledger's role works far better than one would imagine. This is the work of Gilliam the auteur, absolutely unmistakable as a film by anyone else.
Plummer is very good as the mystical old man whose quest for good is undermined by his propensity to gamble and he enjoys wonderful, quiet chemistry with Waits - no unnecessary Sturm und Drang in this relationship, at least on the surface. Ledger does solid work as Tony with a believable British accent and gradually eroding moral believability. It's Ledger who we always see outside of the Imaginarium and never within (a stroke of luck in shooting order - the production scheduled its bluescreen work in Canada, after the present day sequences were completed in England ). Johnny Depp takes on the role for the first seduction within the Imaginarium, a brilliantly colored dance sequence on floating lotus pads, and his on-the-verge-of-sleazy charm is just right. Jude Law has the least interesting sequence in terms of acting, chased by the Russian mob up an unreliable ladder which hovers in space above a flat, pastoral, Gilliamesque landscape. This scene harkens back to Monty Python with its naive animation and row of dancing policeman clad in fishnets, although Python's Proscenium Arch is ever present). Tasked with seducing five souls, Colin Farrell arrives as the uber-seducer, first taking on a delighted Valentina before attempting to take on the world and he is the best Imaginarium Tony - watch how his surprise at his reflection shows a mixture of revulsion and amusement. Lily Cole is cast more for her kewpie-doll looks than experience and she's adequate while Andrew Garfield is youthful and earnest and good as her admirer. The cast's biggest surprise is Verne, the little man with big influence. Verne's Percy is a strong character and the actor takes us from accepting him as a coachman to understanding his influence in keeping Parnassus's troupe rolling along.
McKeown and Gilliam's story is at once a platform for Gilliam's imaginative visuals and cobbled together from fairy tales and fables, an original vision sprung from age old plot lines, and too many of them at that. But I for one would rather spend time in Gilliam's Imaginarium than James Cameron's Pandora, and in his last performance, Heath Ledger has faired well in the director's hands.
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