The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus


If one didn’t know Terry Gilliam, one would almost think that he lucked out through tragedy. However, I do, and that poor fool seems to only work under the most exhausting conditions of battles and hard breaks. They even made a documentary on his Don Quixote that almost was. Terry Gilliam, much like Oliver Stone, seems to only like to make movies when the odds are stacked against him. And he doesn’t always pull through.

This time, he was faced with a seemingly insurmountable tragedy. His lead, Heath Ledger, died during a hiatus between the first and second portion of his new film. So what is he to do? Well, because it’s a Terry Gilliam film, he re-casts the Ledger role for the remaining half. Who does he cast? Why, not one, nor two, but three bankable Hollywood leads: Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.

That’s right. In the face of tragedy (and a film whose bankability would rely upon the one star—granted, he blew up with “The Dark Knight,”) Terry Gilliam puts a film in the can with a large amount of star power, and the final, FINAL, (we think) film of Heath, who was hot off of winning every award known to man (including a BET Music Award, I think) for dying as well as his co-starring role in “The Dark Knight.”

Now, before I continue this little entry, I want to open up something for discussion if anybody wants to educate me. And this will continue with my Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” entry: why does the “ART” in art film overthrow any star power, draw, etc. etc? This film, should have at least done an initial whollop at the box office before the opening weekend responses of “It’s weird…” started to pour in. Instead, no…oh well, too be continued in that BAD LT. post…

Now back to where we were. Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” lucks out in that in takes place in two worlds. There are the run down ugly streets of London, looking dirtier than ever imagined, and there is the majestic land of Dr. Parnassus’ imagination. Now, this is where the beauty kicks in. Ledger passed on after the crummy London bits…leaving the other actors to play Ledger’s character in an imaginary world! And, you guessed it…he enters this world three times. So it’s only natural that the first time he enters the world with a lovely lady who fantasies of a Don Juan who looks much like Don Juan DeMarco…and gets her wish!

Another nice touch is adding inserts of Dr. Parnassus’ daughter longing for a normal life, which is identified by a magazine photo featuring none other than Colin Farrell lounging on the bed. So, of course, when Ledger enters with her, he becomes her version of him…who looks a lot like Colin Farrell.

The weakest link would be the second time, where Ledger, who is on the run from some cats, turns into Jude Law. The way that this character transformation works is that a self help guru is present all over the imagined world. The self help guru is Jude Law. And, well, Ledger becomes Law. You are willing to buy it, however, because at that moment Ledger is trying to hide…and now he can. The dudes he is running from aren’t looking for Jude Law, and are surprised to find him.

Now, while Gilliam magically lucked out for once, this does bring its weaknesses. Not the least of which are the fact that, well…look at what we are talking about…how the film was saved rather than the film itself. Another weakness is that Ledger’s character had quite an arch, and it would be interesting to find the same actor portraying the character as the character unfolds. I felt that I was a bit cheated as the character transformed, so did the performer. In this way, the character didn’t grow…but did totally change.

Interestingly though, I enjoyed Farrell’s performance much more than Ledger (I would probably say Depp’s was second best, Ledgers’ third, and lastly Law). Now part of this is due to the plot. Farrell gets to finish out the film and be the most overzealous, comedic, and cruel. But Farrell does have an enigmatic presence that feels lacking in Ledger’s performance.

Gilliam, for his part, does what Gilliam does. That means that his reality is the ugliest, dirtiest, muckiest, filthiest reality you could ever see. It also means the fantasy sequences are filled with beauty, flying, leaps of great joy, and lots of pale blues. My girlfriend has taken to calling him the dirty guy for his proclivity to, well, dirty things up.

Another note that might be worth mentioning is that Ledger enters the film, hanging from a bridge. It is a bit eerie—it would be eerie regardless, but more so given what happened.

As for the plot itself, well, I haven’t even mentioned Tom Waits. He gives a great performance as the Devil. Yes, The Devil. And Christopher Plummer hits the right notes as Dr. Parnassus. And they are in a game collecting souls. And if the Dr. loses he has to give his daughter over to the Devil. But the Devil doesn’t actually seem like that bad of a dude. And he has a soft spot for the old Dr, who is several thousand years old. And then they find Ledger hanging. And he seems like a godsend. But he really isn’t.

And that’s where it goes. Ledger will bring in the crowds which will help Dr. Parnassus collect souls, which will allow him to beat the Devil. Got it? Well, it is an odd movie, and if you’re familiar with Gilliam, you know it will be a bit oppressive and overbearing. But damn if the Doctor’s imagination ain’t beautiful. If you’re a fan of Gilliam, be sure to seek it out. If you don’t know who Gilliam is, just be warned:  you don’t know what you are in for.


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