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Imagination Reaches Overload in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 30, 2010
Imagination Reaches Overload in <i>The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus</i>

DVD Release Date:  April 27, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  January 8, 2010 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking)
Genre:  Fantasy
Run Time:  122 min.
Director:  Terry Gilliam
Actors:  Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield

Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is so bursting with visual wonders and ideas about faith and belief that one viewing can't do it justice. With only time for one viewing, this reviewer absorbed enough, however, to understand that, despite some memorable moments, the film is a disjointed mess.

That shouldn't come as too big of a surprise. Not only did the film lose its star, Heath Ledger, to an early death before production was completed, forcing the director to supplement Ledger's performance with performances from other big-name actors playing the same role, but Gilliam's oeuvre is littered with episodic films that are wonderful for stretches but don't jell into a cohesive whole. His Monty Python films—Monty Python and The Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life—are beloved by many, but are mostly stitched-together comedy sketches. That's fine for films from a sketch-comedy troupe, but since Gilliam has branched out to other works, he's had a hard time telling feature-length stories.

The 1985 film Brazil, infamously mistreated by its studio, eventually became a classic after being restored to its director's vision and championed by film critics. However, Gilliam's triumph of personal vision with Brazil led to an overindulgence of the director with his future efforts. The cracks begin to show with Gilliam's next studio film, the troubled The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which had enough fantastic elements and performances to carry the film's whimsical, enjoyable meditation on the power of storytelling. By 1991's The Fisher King, the director's trademark visual elements were beginning to look like lazy repetition, but strong performances helped cover the weaknesses of that film.

Things have not gone well for Gilliam since 1995's Twelve Monkeys. His string of directorial efforts since—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland and The Brothers Grimm—have been poorly received by both critics and audiences, and the director has seen a pet project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, plagued with ills that forced it to cease production. (The film is currently back on track, scheduled for a 2011 release. The production's tumult has been documented in a feature-length film called Lost in La Mancha.)

Gilliam, it has been said, resembles Don Quixote in that he sees what others can't quite see, and has tried to turn those images into cinematic reality. The trouble is, his personal quests sometimes leave the audience behind. If Gilliam is so in control of his own vision, why can't he present it in a coherent manner?

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus shows Gilliam's strengths as a visual artist, but more glaringly reveals his shortcomings as a storyteller. He's bitten off quite a lot with this story of a street performer, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who sets up shop in contemporary London and uses his daughter (Lily Cole) and a young male performer (Andrew Garfield) to entice people to walk through a curtain, behind which they behold wonders.

For Parnassus, these supernatural experiences are nothing unusual. He claims to be a monk who gained immortality through a wager with the devil (known as Mr. Nick and played by Tom Waits), but has come to believe that immortal life is a curse rather than a blessing. Now the devil has tracked him down and demanded that Parnassus fulfill his end of their earlier bargain. The two beings then engage in a battle for people's souls.

The film's theology allows for the devil to grant eternal life and for the universe to be sustained not by God but by monks who tell a certain story. It does show the devil to be devious, a trickster, someone not to be trusted, but God is barely mentioned, even as characters talk of miracles, pure sacrifices and eternal life.

In short, the film as a story is as messy as its theology, but it's hard to take one's eyes off the screen during the telling. The visuals in the imaginarium sequences are vivid, and several shots of Parnassus and his troupe are infused with a dark beauty. Sadly, that's not nearly enough to recommend the ponderous Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam may yet make another great film, but recent evidence suggests a career in serious decline. The director's imagination appears to be spent. Like Parnassus himself, Gilliam is doing the same act, and the public has lost whatever interest it once might have had.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Several obscenities; "god—mmit."
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Doctor Parnassus is often drunk and shown drinking; a man jumps on stage, drunk, and gropes a woman; a scene at Mr. Nick's, a lounge/bar; several scenes of smoking by numerous characters.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A woman on a stage appears to be naked, but her long hair partially covers her breasts and midsection; a man slaps a woman's backside; in the imaginarium, a woman tries to drag Tony to a hotel with a "Vacancy" sign, but he declines; Tony and Eve kiss in a boat, and are seen with their shirts unbuttoned in the next scene; Eve's bra is seen.
  • Violence/Crime:  A man hangs by the neck from a bridge; drunken brawling; gangster violence.
  • Religion:  A performer portrays Mercury, the messenger of the gods; Parnassus and the devil engage in a battle for souls; immortality is achieved through a bargain with the devil, but everlasting life is viewed as a trick more than a reward, and as a "bloody curse"; monks are said to repeat a "universal story" that sustains the universe; the devil shuts their mouths in order to disprove this theory, which the devil calls "ridiculous nonsense"; tarot cards are turned over and it is said that they "don't lie"; Doctor Parnassus promises to "purify" those who will enter his imaginarium; it is said that a person's sacrifice must be "absolutely pure"; Satan shifts shapes into a giant serpent; a character says, "Nothing's permanent. Even death"; the pregnancy of a 60-year-old woman is said to be either a miracle or a mistake.