Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

As you may or may not have noticed by now, I have a thing for directors. If a film is made by a director I dislike, I have trouble praising the film, regardless of its strengths. If a film is made by a director I love, I tend to look more kindly at its various faults. I realize that the goal of a reviewer should always be objectivity, but, alas, on the subject of directors, objectivity is something I just can't achieve. How, you ask, does this pertain to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in any way?
Well, simply put, I'm not very fond of director Terry Gilliam. In films, I generally prefer substance over style, or at least some substance to balance the style, and readers, Gilliam is all style. Gilliam's films are, by nature, loud, frenetic, confusing, and caving in under their own ferocious weight. All of this could be fine, however, if Gilliam saw fit to write films with storytelling heft, or emotional honesty. Sadly, he doesn't, and, as such, his films amount to nothing more than large, somewhat pretty piles of nothing.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus tells the story of the titular M.D. (Christopher Plummer), an immortal conjurer whose multiple deals with the devil have left him in a pickle, a word which here means 'he's sold his daughter to the devil in exchange for magic and crap.' The magic in question? Why, Parnassus's Imaginarium, which allows him to enter the imagination of passers-by, forcing them to engage in a spiritual battle between the venerable Parnassus, and the Devil (Tom Waits), who is, for all intents and purposes in this film, a silent melodrama villain, complete with thin mustache and a sneer. His archaic lifestyle is thrown into chaos, however, when Tony (Heath Ledger) comes into the picture. A man with a dark past, but full of businessman-like ideas, Tony reboots the Imaginarium just in time for a final duel with the devil to save Parnassus's daughter.
All this makes some sense, I suppose, and could even be compelling in the right hands. This film is not compelling, however. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And my, does the imagination stretch in this film. The scenes set within the Imaginarium are visually striking and clever enough, but fail to take really take advantage of a location in which absolutely anything is possible, nor do the Imaginarium scenes ever add up to anything within the confines of the film's plot. The real-world scenes also contain moments of visual beauty. It's obvious that Gilliam is trying his best to create something mind-bending and altogether new here, but I can't help but think of other films this year (Avatar or The Lovely Bones) that create more interesting and plausible new worlds, or other films (like A Single Man, District 9, or Coraline) that find the mystical or unique in the real world far more capably than The Imaginarium does. In short? The film fails on its own terms.
It's a pity that this is Heath Ledger's last film. Ledger does his damnedest with the role, and he makes more out of it than it had to be, but it's just a shame that he didn't get one more great role. I think I'll just pretend The Dark Knight was the last film he did. Christopher Plummer, as well, does the most with what he's given, which, of course, isn't much. Particularly cloying is Verne Troyer, the little person of reality TV fame. I'd like to introduce a truism here which I would like film-makers to take to heart: the presence of a dwarf itself simply isn't funny. You can't just put a dwarf on screen and assume that the comedy will happen by itself. Take In Bruges for instance. Funny things happen that involve a dwarf. But you aren't laughing simply because there's a dwarf on screen. That's called a sideshow, and most people grow out of that. So please: if you really must include a dwarf in your screenplay, give the poor fellow something to do other than be short.
Overall, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a complete and utter failure, redeemed slightly by mildly interesting visuals and some not entirely terrible acting. Is this enough to warrant a viewing? Not in the slightest. The only draw I imagine that this film will have is the final performance of Heath Ledger. Reader, do yourself a favor: if you want to see Heath Ledger's last performance, go rent The Dark Knight. It will be time much better spent.

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