Tuesday, January 12, 2010



THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS is just about perfect. This story of good versus evil with a trickster in the middle is amazingly fluid even though the star died before filming was complete. The inevitable series of script rewrites that took place were obviously well-thought out because PARNASSUS is seamless.

Director Terry Gilliam has a “feel” about his films, and PARNASSUS has that feeling in its entirety. Gilliam’s syllabus often contains lush, intricate depictions of a world just on the edge of or completely lost in surrealism. There is usually an element of whimsy coupled with a touch of danger. Gilliam’s movies can be safe for the kids (TIME BANDITS) or squarely in adult country (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). The wonderful thing is that Gilliam has his own style much like Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, or Alfred Hitchcock had theirs. While the complaint might be made that Gilliam is recycling some of his visual images for this film (bodies that stretch, faces the size of mountains, edges that drop into nothingness), they are all necessary in PARNASSUS and fit in nicely with the story.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an elderly travelling sideshow man with a rotating mirror that is a gateway into his mind. Parnassus is accompanied in his horse-drawn, fold-out Imaginarium which is a stage/storage unit/bedroom by his pixie-looking daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), their small, smart-assed driver Percy (Vern Troyer), and their trusty flamboyant assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield). Money and time are short for Parnassus who has made a deal with cigarette-smoking, pencil mustachioed Mr. Nick (Tom Waits)—the devil himself.

A key part of Parnassus’ history is that he bargained with Mr. Nick for immortality but does not enjoy eternal youth. He is 1000 plus years old and looks it when he sees and falls in love with a young woman. Mr. Nick agrees to give him youth so that he can woo and win the young woman. The rub is any child from the union will belong to Mr. Nick when he or she turns sixteen. As the film begins, Valentina’s sixteenth birthday is a few days away, and Mr. Nick has come to collect her soul

But Mr. Nick likes to gamble and offers to give Parnassus a chance to free Valentina. If Parnassus can save five souls before Mr. Nick damns five, he will release Valentina. When Tony (Heath Ledger) joins the rambling Imaginarium crew, all sorts of new elements are introduced, but the clock is still ticking for Valentina’s date with the devil, and Tony steps up to the challenge.

The character of Tony is an interesting one because he is tertiary, yet the film follows the adventures of the protagonist (Parnassus) versus the antagonist (Mr. Nick) through him. In order to cover for Ledger’s death during filming, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all play Tony when the character is in Parnassus’ mind-mirror. Each turn exposes a little more of the man that Tony truly is. Each actor’s scripted adventure as Tony seems custom made for them. This doesn’t fall flat at all. The transitions from Ledger-Tony to any of the other Tonys works every time. In fact, when this same mechanism was employed in the Bob Dylan trainwreck I’M NOT THERE, the result was such a failure that he film’s only use seems to be to cite how PARNASSUS does it better.

The question that hangs in the air long after the film is whether Tony is evil or whether he is good. Whatever the case may be, he is a manipulator, locked between good and evil, and having a rough go of it while he negotiates his way through the mind of Parnassus.

PARNASSUS clocks in at just under two hours, and it never drags. The only glaring weak point is Vernon Troyer’s subpar acting which is mostly eclipsed by the constant spectacle of this film. The world of Parnassus’ mind is revealed slowly, and by the time it all starts to make complete sense, the film resets and takes an even more intense route grounded in reality that is sure to leave most viewers with things to discuss long after the final credits roll (and we hear Tony’s cellphone ring again). THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS is a triumph and should be enjoyed in theaters. This isn’t an AVATAR situation where spectacle outweighs the plot; this is a wonderfully balanced film that takes you into a different land and provides classic, intelligent concepts to pore over long after the movie ends.

-Mediasaurus Rex

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