Monday, June 28, 2010

Welcome to the Imaginarium

What can I say about Terry Gilliam's 2009 movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? What is it about, who is in it, and what is it like?

It's about a kind of medicine show, a horse drawn gypsy wagon/stage show that parks around London and tries to get paying customers to experience the Imaginarium. It stars a ripe aged Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus, with Lily Cole as his teenaged daughter, Andrew Garfield as his assistant (and Cole's suitor), and Vern Troyer as Percival, their imp. But things aren't as busker-happy as they seem: Dr. Parnassus has made a bet with the Devil (Tom Waits!) for the possession of his daughter.

Then they rescue Heath Ledger who they find hanged under the bridge, and he turns everything upside down. He is a bit more of a go-getter than the Imaginarium crew, although his past is a mystery. Another mystery is that he changes when he goes through the world of the Imaginarium: changes into Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

But what is it like? It can get pretty surrealistic - the experience of the Imaginarium takes you into the mind of Dr. Parnassus and gives you a choice between Good and Evil, Virtue and Vice, Dr. Parnassus or Tom Waits. These imaginary worlds are very Terry Gilliam. He even has a giant policeman's head, which is half Monty Python, half Zardoz. The "real world" part of the film has a nice gritty backstreet urban gypsy look and feel.

Of course, it was Heath Ledger's last role. After he died, several actors filled in for him, and the movie was altered to account for this. It takes a certain kind of movie to make this work. And this is that kind of movie.

I liked this a lot, but I'm not sure it was completely successful. For one thing, the conflict between Parnassus and the Devil was somewhat muddled. Maybe it's because he was played by Tom Waits with a pencil-thin mustache, but he is rather sympathetic. Dr. Parnassus, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be especially good. And I was disappointed by how they resolved Ledger's mystery. This one could have been a lot more ambiguous.

But maybe I just missed the point. Either way, I didn't let it bother me. Don't let it bother you either, just let it roll over you, like a great horse-drawn caravan.

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