Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Grandiose Gilliam

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits

The first 15 minutes of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus would make a fantastic short: crammed with director Terry Gilliam’s usual surfeit of dazzling imagery, the opening is so breathtaking in its casual sleight-of-hand—including references to Gilliam’s animation for Monty Python’s Flying Circus—that it can’t help but make the rest of Parnassus a let-down.

Gilliam’s latest jinxed production is the film Heath Ledger was working on when he died of an overdose. It was at first uncertain if Gilliam could go on with filming, since Ledger was playing a pivotal role as Tony, a cheating charity owner rescued from certain death by members of a traveling circus led by the immortal Dr. Parnassus, including his child-like 16-year-old daughter Valentina and two sidekicks, the lovestruck teenager Anton and the grumpy dwarf Percy.

Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown re-wrote sections of the script, plugging in actors Depp, Law and Farrell to play Ledger’s role without losing a beat. How? The contraption of the title serves as a gateway to the doctor’s vivid imagination, and whenever Tony enters it in each of three fantasy sequences, he “becomes” one of the other actors.

Gilliam plugs in amusing in-jokes as Tony sees himself in these scenes and notes unhappily that he looks different; but the poignancy over Ledger’s loss occurs more often when he is onscreen giving a racy, incisive and distinctly unmannered performance. (On the other hand, the trio of replacements labors hard to act like Ledger, and only Depp partially succeeds.)

Parnassus is truly a sight to behold: the eye-popping colors, sublimely silly juxtapositions of varied styles (similar to the stew that drove the Beatles’ animated feature Yellow Submarine) and witty visual jokes are typically Gilliam. What was once innovative and revelatory now seems stale, maybe because CGI effects can conjure anything, and the bluest sky and greenest grass that’s ever seen don’t make one shake one’s head in wonderment any more.

Unfortunately, Gilliam limits what his actors can do, since they are all at the service of his visual primacy. In addition to the frisky Ledger, Plummer nearly pulls off the miraculous feat of making us sympathize with the immortal Parnassus, and it’s only because Gilliam and McKeown’s script that he doesn’t register as a real human being. Still, Plummer’s immense charm comes through, especially during his deals with Mr. Nick (a k a Mephistopheles, whose Faustian bargain Parnassus accepted, played with little charisma by an unsinister Waits): you believe he could charm the devil himself, not the other way around. Plummer also looks the part of an elderly fool, like a regal King Lear turned into a mad Don Quixote.

I would also love to admire the camerawork of Nicola Pecorini, but when much of the movie is CGI, how does one figure out the cinematographer’s actual contribution?

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