Karn Evil 9: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23,  2010)

Step inside, step inside…

Terry Gilliam must be a very persuasive man. How he convinced Heath Ledger to work with him again after that ill-advised train wreck The Brothers Grimm, is beyond my ken. Then again, Ledger could not have predicted that he would die prior to the completion of principal shooting for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which will now be cemented (for better or for worse) as the late actor’s swan song.

“For better or for worse” could be the mantra of the unflappable Gilliam fan, considering the iconoclastic writer-director’s spotty and underwhelming output since 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which represents the last detectable vestige of “classic” Gilliam. And as entertaining as that film was, it still doesn’t hold a candle to his Holy Trinity- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones), Time Bandits and Brazil. So-does his new film redeem his reputation and convey respect to Heath Ledger’s legacy?

Well, kind of. If you have seen the excellent 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha (a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Gilliam’s ill-fated project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) or the illuminating “making of” feature in Criterion’s edition of Brazil, you know that Gilliam is one of those directors who thrives in the face of adversity. Considering the tragic circumstances, Gilliam has done an admirable job of salvaging, from both a narrative standpoint and in preserving one last wonderful turn from Ledger.

An odd mash-up of The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Stuntman, and Angel Heart, the film is a “through the looking glass” tale about an anachronistic travelling circus touring present-day England. The small troupe, led by the wizened, mysterious and frequently plastered Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, reeling through the proceedings like King Lear on a bender) ply their trade via horse-drawn wagon, setting up anywhere they might be able to scare up some coin.

The star attraction is the “Imaginarium”, entered (of course) through a looking glass. Once inside, depending on what kind of psychic baggage they bring with them, the patron becomes immersed in either a) their most treasured fantasy, or b) most dreaded nightmare (in full Sensurround). So-how, when and where did he learn this neat trick? Long story, but I won’t bore you with details (that’s the director’s job). Suffice it to say that it has something to do with immortality, and a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits).

Every Faustian bargain carries a caveat; for Dr. Parnassus, it’s a heart breaker that has  driven him to drink, and the time is now fast approaching to give the Devil his due. He also has his hands full with his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who is on the cusp of her 16th birthday. Valentina loves her father, but has grown weary of the troupe’s hand-to-mouth existence, and dreams of escaping the family business to enjoy a “normal” life (which makes for an amusingly ironic twist on the cliché about the kid who yearns to run away and join the circus).

Meantime, the doctor’s young apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield) secretly pines for her. The dynamics become more interesting when the troupe picks up a new barker (Heath Ledger), an amnesiac with a possibly dubious past, who they initially discover (literally) under a bridge (hanging, actually…don’t ask).

Without giving too much away, I will say that Ledger’s central (if unfinished) performance has been made miraculously whole through Gilliam’s resourcefulness and assistance from three talented guest stars-Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all seamlessly incorporated into the narrative as several Imaginarium-enhanced “versions” of Ledger’s character. The cast is uniformly good; Waits is an inspired choice as ol’ Scratch (known here as “Mr. Nick”) and Verne Troyer is on hand as the doctor’s longtime counsel/business partner (it wouldn’t really be a Terry Gilliam film without at least one little person in the cast, would it?).

As I implied earlier, this film may not rank among Gilliam’s best, but on a sliding scale, it comes close in execution and spirit to his “classic” period (a choreographed number with dancing bobbies is an unexpected delight, invoking the spirit of the original Python ethos for one brief and shining moment). The director hasn’t lost his visual flair; he certainly knows how to fill every available bit of space in the frame with eye-popping imagery (and probably brought it in at a cost somewhere in the neighborhood of the catering bill for Avatar). Gilliam proves that sometimes, the cheap rides can be more fun.

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