Paging Dr. Parnassus…

What better way to get the blog back on track than with a review. And dig this: I just saw The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus! What a treat. Wait… I also get to write my 50th post about it? Even better.

This weekend, in an effort to pull myself out of an inspirational rut, I went through a significant movie binge. The only thing is, there was only one movie that was truly worth my time and money: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. I first heard about this film the day Heath Ledger died; so what would naturally become another brilliant piece of work to add to the list of brilliant Terry Gilliam films was completely overshadowed by the grim outlook Ledger’s untimely death cast upon it. If you’ve seen Lost in La Mancha, you already know that Gilliam is no stranger to on-set misfortune, but Ledger’s death was an unforeseen tragedy that could have easily killed any hope for the completion of Imaginarium — not to mention the moral quandary Gilliam must have undergone when considering how to proceed. Fortunately, enough of Ledger’s scenes were completed for Gilliam to employ a genius plot device: Dr. Parnassus’ magic mirror. Bravo to Gilliam for figuring out a way to successfully work around Ledger’s passing.

Following two beautifully made, but unfortunate, flops, Gilliam creates a modern-day fairy tale in Imaginarium. The story follows the immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) as he travels with his theater troupe showcasing his magical imaginarium: a magical mirror that wisks people away into the fantastic world of their imaginations controlled by Parnassus’ mind. So, to clarify, the title of the film isn’t just a clever name. Parnassus, growing weary from his immortality and inability to fight his apparent gambling addiction, constantly wagers with the devilishly dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), who may or may not be the Devil. Well, he is the devil, but I wouldn’t say that he’s the biblical devil. He’s much too dapper. Regardless, Parnassus is about to face the consequences of his dealings with Mr. Nick, having won immortality and love — the latter in exchange for the resulting children once they’ve reached the age of 16 (also the age of consent in London, apparently). His only daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), is days away from that fateful age and Parnassus isn’t down with handing her over. He makes one last wager with Mr. Nick and the first one to five souls gets Valentina.

Taking place in modern-day London, there is no real interest in the Vaudeville-esque act as drunkards toss their bottles at the stage and children are glued to their Nintendo DS’s. It isn’t until the troupe comes across Tony (Heath Ledger) that their show begins to draw an audience. As we all know, Tony was also played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. As Ledger’s Tony accompanied variously selected audience members through the mirror, he took the form of whatever man the imaginations of the individuals dictated. Each different incarnation of Tony was played seamlessly and illustrated three different sides of his personality: Depp played the romantic, Law was ambitious and anxious to literally climb to the top, and Farrell was the true Tony (but I’m not going to spoil anything for you). Initially, I was a little skeptical of how each Tony would play out, but the transformations, especially when he first crosses through the mirror, were seamless. I even exclaimed that (silently) in the theater.

What I really admired about Ledger’s performance was that he didn’t upstage any of the actors. While the performance was strong, it wasn’t anything like The Dark Knight in that he didn’t completely steal the show. As always, in a Terry Gilliam film, the story comes first. Personally, it makes me happy that Heath Ledger was able to end his career with a Gilliam film. Although his portrayal of the Joker deserves all of the credit that it gets, as a whole, the entire Dark Knight film left a bad taste in my mouth. Of course, I’ll admit that I’m a much bigger fan of Terry Gilliam’s work than I am of Christopher Nolan’s.

While we’re on the subject of other directors, after giving Avatar a review that was probably a little too gracious in retrospect, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus delivered something that James Cameron would never be able to pull off, even at his peak (which some could argue is now): an imaginative, visually stimulating film with excellent writing and acting. The same goes for, say, Tim Burton. What I like about Terry Gilliam is that every movie I see feels like a passion project of his, and while critics and movie-goers often shit on The Brothers Grimm, I still saw the same character and drive to tell a good story regardless of what Rotten Tomatoes says. But that is what is most admirable about Terry Gilliam’s work. He doesn’t adhere to the restrictions set by the studios. The downside to this is that his films don’t get the wide distribution that every other piece of unoriginal garbage directed by Tim Burton gets. Tideland is, in my opinion, one of the best movies of the 00’s, and yet it was only released in nine theaters in the United States. Tragic. Regardless of distribution, Terry Gilliam respects his audience enough to challenge their imaginations with movies like Imaginarium and Tideland. Imaginarium is definitely Terry Gilliam at his best.

Go see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. You really won’t regret it. And I assure you, your brain will be grateful.

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