The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
What’s the deal with Terry Gilliam? If I was a believer, I’d almost think God was out to get him. He has had more trouble getting his films made and distributed than anyone I can think of. The story of the legal fight over Brazil is legend in Hollywood. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was hardly released at all due to a regime change at Columbia, so that the new guys actively killed everything they hadn’t had a hand in. He was halfway into pre-production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote when all his sets were wiped out by a flood of Biblical proportions, and then all his investors fled. (The only good thing to come out of that was an excellent little documentary about the disaster, Lost in La Mancha. But it’s in pre-production again, with Robert Duvall as Quixote.) And now this. One of his stars dies in the middle of filming. I would not be surprised in the least to hear that Gilliam had been swallowed by a whale, or had a plague of frogs and locusts invade his home.
But this time he came out okay. The way they dealt with the death of Heath Ledger was that every time his character entered the magical world of Doctor Parnassus, where your imagination becomes reality, he was played by a different actor, who at first registers that his face has changed, and then simply accepts it and moves on. This works remarkably well. The actors are Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. (All three donated their salaries on the film to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda, who is 4½ . Bravo, guys.)
People’s reaction to Terry Gilliam’s films depend largely on how important plot is to them. Plot has always been Gilliam’s weakness. I have a friend for whom plot is pretty much everything, and he can’t stand Gilliam. For myself, I like a good plot that makes sense, but if the movie can show me something visually that I’ve never seen before, I can excuse a lot of plot holes. I can be okay with a nonsensical plot. Gilliam’s visuals are so good, so startling, so unique, that the rest of the film has to be an utter mess, like Tideland or, not quite as bad, The Brothers Grimm, for me to not like it. So I loved Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and liked Twelve Monkeys quite a lot, in spite of the fact that they often didn’t make a lot of sense. This film is of that caliber and beyond, and as an added bonus, I thought the story was pretty good, too. Like many other Gilliam films, it’s about a traveling troupe of entertainers. They live in a huge, shoddy, horse-drawn wagon that is larger on the inside than on the outside. They are in modern London, but they are dressed for an earlier age. They put on a silly show on the street, and hardly anybody comes. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is over a thousand years old and has the ability to send people through a “mirror” (actually just two sheets of Mylar) and into a world of their own imagination. And this, of course, is where the movie really shines. These worlds are incredible. And let me say once again what a pleasure it is to see high-powered CGI SFX put to some actual creative use to produce a world that delights, instead of the endless, dreary, repetitive darkness of the comic book movies we get today.
Have to add a word about the Doctor’s daughter, a newcomer named Lily Cole. Her heart-shaped, child-like face, with wide eyes and tiny mouth, is utterly entrancing, and she acts well, too. And she’s almost as tall as Uma Thurman. She is currently at work as Alice in Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, directed by … gasp! … Marilyn Manson. I hope it’s worth seeing. I think she could be a big star.