This is the first film I am reviewing that I can honestly say that I did not like. In fact, I really did not like this film. My first thought while watching it, reminiscing sadly over how much I loved 12 Monkeys, was: “Terry Gilliam, what happened?” My second thought was a quote from a much superior Colin Farrell film, In Bruges: “It [is] a jumped-up Eurotrash piece of rip-off f***ing bullsh*t.” It was that bad.
The story is about a man, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer in a serious of embarrassing costumes) who makes a Faustian pact with the devil (an uninspired Tom Waits) that grants him immortality, and another pact, over a woman, in which he wagers his daughter’s soul when she turns sixteen. Parnassus wanders with his band of performers, his daughter Valentina (a vapid model-turned-actress, Lily Cole), Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Percy (a wisecracking Verne Troyer). Together they use theatrics to get people to enter Parnassus’ “imaginarium” (or magic mirror) to see their dream worlds come to life. Meanwhile, Valentina wants to run away to join real life, borrowing the character motivation of Helena from Mirrormask for a while; Anton has a crush on Valentina; Parnassus struggles with alcoholism; and they find a man hanging by his neck under a bridge. This man is Tony, played by Heath Ledger, who has amnesia and is being pursued by the Russian mob, who want him dead. Sound convoluted enough for you yet? Oh, wait, it’s just getting started. Tony falls for Valentina, making Anton jealous. The devil, for some reason, offers Parnassus another bet for Valentina’s soul: a race to who can win the first five souls in the imaginarium (through tricks, not actual choices of good and evil, really), and Heath Ledger dies and is replaced by a series of other actors who look confused. The plot is then eaten by special effects. Valentina is lost. Tony becomes bad for some reason and is lynched (yes) by dream people (yes). Mobsters show up, go to hell and are never heard from again. Then, there’s a happy ending that no one really earned, and the movie just kind of stops all of a sudden.
Basically, what I think happened, since the actual film was not like the original synopsis, was that Heath Ledger’s death just ruined plot number one, and Terry Gilliam just decided to go insane and projectile vomit every “whimsical” idea he ever had into a giant, CGI mess. There is practically no character development. I think we were supposed to root for Valentina and Parnassus, but I just kind of hated them both. Anton barely had a character. Heath Ledger’s Tony was interesting in a morally ambiguous, trickster way (like the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth), but Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell look lost and disconnected. Johnny Depp’s cameo was really distracting, because he seemed to have wandered into the set drunk, stole a costume, and just acted quirky for a few minutes before scampering off.
Now, the film is not all bad. The costumes are inventive. I liked the beginning, which was eerie and magical and I think really worked to draw the audience in. The stage set was really interesting, as well, and the cinematography was nice. But, this is not enough to save the film from what eventually becomes a maddening whirlpool of CG exercises, none of which are engaging or imaginative. I was getting horrifying flashbacks to Spy Kids 3 and Shark Boy and Lava Girl, which is never a good thing. The CG looked plastic and rigid, like a video game. You could see the reused animation, and it was not attractive. None of the designs were even very inspired, and seemed to be based on rejected sketches from Tim Burton’s worst works, attempts at parodying Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and leftovers from Terry Gilliam’s other films. The pretentious quality the CG had, that “look, we’re being arty, surreal and whimsical” feel, just made it more annoying. I felt like I did in Lady in the Water, as though the director were trying to say that you have to be childlike and imaginative to get his genius, when really the film lacks both qualities. Gilliam, just because you can put all of your crazy fantasies onto the screen, does not mean that you should throw them in our faces every two seconds.
The writing was sloppy, as well, and contained various pseudo-religious moments that were there to apparently lend gravitas (though it really just felt silly, and the orientalism was rather racist). You are left with no one to sympathize with or even find interesting, and a whole lot of CG junk flying around in a seizure-inducing frenzy. Also, Terry Gilliam just needs to stop it with his whole underage girl/adult man romance thing. It’s creepy and Lily Cole’s portrayal of a sexy sixteen-year-old just felt exploitative towards women and girls in general. Does the audience really need to ogle what is presented as a child’s body?
The sad part is, I really wanted to like this film. I wanted to see Terry Gilliam come back with a great flick, because I really do admire the man. I wanted Heath Ledger’s last movie to be a good one. I wanted to see a whimsical, surreal fantasy step into the mainstream. But, no matter how hard I tried, I was annoyed, teased and pestered by this thoroughly aggravating attempt at arthouse. My suggestion? If you want a magical, surreal film about life and death and imagination, go watch The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. It’s infinitely better.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is directed by Terry Gilliam and stars Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Lily Cole, and Tom Waits. The writers are Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown.