Smoke and Mirrors
2009 // UK - Canada - France // Terry Gilliam // January 17, 2009 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Tivoli Theater)
C- - When it comes to Terry Gilliam films, I wouldn't say that the only attraction is their design, but I'd be kidding myself if I denied that the essential allure of a new Gilliam feature is the look of the thing. Those occasions when Gilliam has mated his distinctive mode of fantasy—part Victorian / Edwardian stagecraft, part comic strip zaniness—to a compelling set of characters, the result is tongue-in-cheek gold, as in Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (His two dystopian science-fiction films, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, are equally great, but vibrate to an entirely different frequency.) Gilliam's new feature, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is a weird bauble that fits snugly into his oeuvre, yet like all of the director's weaker efforts, it's also a mess from a storytelling perspective. It's debatable how much of that can be blamed on the regrettable death of his leading man, Heath Ledger, and how much on Gilliam's own hand, but it's also telling that Imaginarium is disjointed tonally and narratively. At its worst, Imaginarium plays out less like a film and more like a book of concept art that has been inelegantly cobbled together into a film. There's something more than a little perverse about a film-maker with such palpable thematic interest in myth-making but who nonetheless has a hard time finding a foothold in his own tale.
The plot is a convoluted thing. Many centuries ago, the titular Doctor Parnassus (Chistopher Plummer) was a Buddhist monk of great mystical power who made a bet with the infernal Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, ingenuously cast). Parnassus prevailed and won immortality by coercing more souls than Mr. Nick with a message of enlightenment. However, Mr. Nick, always more interested in the game than actually winning, offers yet another deal: Parnassus can have the woman he loves, provided any children sired by their union become Mr. Nick's upon their sixteenth birthday. You and I might call this a sucker's deal, but Parnassus takes it. Fast-forward to the present: the now-widowed doctor and his just-shy-of-sixteen daughter, Valentina (the oddly doll-like Lily Cole), are wandering London in a precarious horse-drawn wagon that converts into a gaudy theater. With the help of stagehands Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), they offer curious onlookers an opportunity—for a small fee, of course—to journey into a magic mirror that links with the mind of the meditating Doctor. Within the mirror, the interloper discovers a dreamscape fashioned out of their own desires, and there they are eventually offered a choice between the virtue of Parnassus and the vice of Mr. Nick. (The original bet is long concluded, but Parnassus seems to be out to prove something about the inherent goodness of humanity. Or something.)
Although her birthday is only days away, Parnassus hasn't got around to breaking it to his daughter that she will soon become a bride of Satan. For her part, Valentina just wants to leave her father's odd little sideshow and lead a normal life, while Anton just wants Valentina to notice him. Into this mix comes a wild card in the form of mystery man Tony (Ledger), whom the troupe finds hanging from a noose under a bridge, just barely alive thanks to a old rogue's trick. Improbably enough, the amnesiac Tony agrees to assist Parnassus with his show for the time being, at least until he sorts out his past, which has something to do with a children's charity and the Russian mob. It's around this time that Mr. Nick appears and suggests an escape hatch to his previous deal with Parnassus: the first man to collect five souls before the sweet sixteen deadline will win Valentina. Fortunately, Tony proves to be a charismatic pitchman for Parnassus' show, turning Valentina's head and prompting the Doctor to suspect a Mr. Nick double-cross.
Predictably enough, this elaborate story is really just a vessel to get different characters into the magic mirror, so that Gilliam can indulge his own fascination with bizarre vistas and screwball logic. And for the most part, the forays into the mirror do indeed work as loopy set-pieces, filled with memorable sight-gags and surrealist flourishes. Gilliam, who was once known for his fascination with practical effects and traditional animation, adopts computer wizardry whole-heartedly here, but he employs it in the service of his own self-consciously kooky sensibility, rather than attempting modern slickness. While his peculiar digital landscapes have a flat, cartoonish quality, I'm inclined to regard this as a feature rather than a bug, given that it fits so neatly into Gilliam's own animation legacy. Indeed, some of the scenes within Parnassus' mirror resemble nothing so much as Monty Python cartoon shorts brought to life, with Gilliam privileging detail and motion over realism. (In this, the look of Imaginarium inclines towards the Wachowskis' vastly underrated Speed Racer, although its aesthetic is nowhere as cohesive and successful as in that film.)
The fatal flaw is that the movie surrounding these demented cartoon shorts is comparatively dreary, drifting, and vaguely conveyed. The problem is partly structural: by lashing his film to the magic mirror conceit, Gilliam has essentially thrown out the Long Journey aspect that has made his most successful fantasy features jitter with storybook energy. Granted, the stories in Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen often don't make a lick of sense, but they at least are honest-to-gods adventures that involve the heroes galloping from Points A to B to C. (Indeed, dallying too long in one place or another is frequently treated as a crises in both films.) Imaginarium breaks this mold, but the result is dismal rather than daring. No matter how amazing the sights within Parnassus' dreamscapes, we eventually have to pop back into murky London and its confusing real-world story.
It doesn't help that Gilliam neglects to provide a clear, appealing protagonist, which is sort of a necessity when you dabble in settings with elaborate fantasy rules. The negligent Parnassus, vain Valentina, and whiny Anton are all too vaguely drawn and distasteful in one way or another to be the hero of the tale, and Tony deliberately remains a cipher until the third act. Gilliam seems to have forgotten to give us a truly interesting character to grasp amid all the weirdness. Waits' performance is ticklish fun, but Mr. Nick is never as enthralling or as menacing as, say, David Warner's Absolute Evil in Time Bandits. I hesitate to speak ill of Ledger's last performance, but suffice to say that it just doesn't leave an impression. Gilliam worked around his star's death with a little fudging: when he ventures into the mirror, Tony's appearance changes to match the aspect of the personality that is dominant in the current fantasy, whether suave object of desire (Johnny Depp), ambitious golden boy (Jude Law), or celebrity asshole (Colin Farrell). To Gilliam's credit, the casting plays subtly off each star's public persona to nice effect, but the game of Musical Actors only highlights the story's conspicuous seams (perhaps unavoidable given Ledger's passing) and the essential colorlessness of Tony as he is written.
While Imaginarium, like any Gilliam feature, has its pleasures, the outlandish visuals and funny-pages silliness can't hide the careless nature of the film's fundamentals. In neglecting story and character, Gilliam leaves us with little more than a few whimsical doses of hallucinatory distraction, surrounded by a distressingly sloppy film.