Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Terry Gilliam has Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to thank for the existence of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The film might not exist at all if the three stars hadn't stepped in to contribute cameos after the death of Heath Ledger during shooting, but whatever notoriety Imaginarium has going forward will at least in part be due to its place as the answer to the trivia question about Ledger's last screen appearance. Ledger is winning in the role of Tony, a disgraced charity executive rescued from a suicide attempt by the performing troupe of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). Parnassus is the proprietor of the "Imaginarium," a sort of psychic hall of mirrors that allows those who enter to accept the power of their imaginations. The conceit of the script by Gilliam and Charles McKeown is that the immortal Parnassus is locked in an eternal battle with "Mr.Nick," aka The Devil and played with a nice offhandedness by Tom Waits. Parnassus represents the last vestiges of the power of myth, narrative, and imagination to shape human society, while Mr. Nick offers the slickness and easy pleasure of modernity.
Despite all of Ledger's charm (like all his best roles, this part doesn't depend on his good looks), Imaginarium belongs mostly to Plummer. I still can't quite get my head around the fact that Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music is still alive and working, but Plummer is still unquestionably in top form. He rumbles and wheezes through the film like a Lear betrayed by his own arrogance and lust into allowing Nick to make him immortal. The Doctor's one saving grace is his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), the beating heart of the film. Valentina is tempted by the tranquility she sees in home magazines; will she be seduced by the worldly Tony or the Doctor's doting but naive assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield)? The Imaginarium is a coming-out party of sorts for Cole, whose striking good looks are both Classical and today at the same time
Depp, Law, and Farrell all show up in CGI sequences set inside the Imaginarium, pretty to look at at but with the feel of DVD bonus materials. Their presence is justified within the story, but just barely. The longer the movie goes on the further it goes off track, as the struggle between Parnassus and Nick (with Valentina's soul as the prize) is displaced in favor of the less compelling question of Tony's fate. I can't believe I'm saying this but Imaginarium has one of the same problems as the far more conventional The Lovely Bones; behavior and motivation are knocked flat by digital effects. (Gilliam accomplished just as much with a guy on a horse and a good cameraman in The Fisher King) As shaky as the late scenes feel, Plummer's determination to keep the movie in his teeth gets Gilliam and Imaginarium out of its third-act jam. Gilliam's ending is hopeful: the struggle goes on and the stories may be smaller, but the audience is still there.