The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Posted on Sunday, April 4th, 2010 at 11:22 pm

I put off seeing this movie for 2 reasons: I wasn’t sure I was ready to see Heath Ledger’s last movie, having taken his spectacular performance in The Dark Knight a little hard, and the popular reviews had not been very good.

I think all those reviewers who panned this movie have never seen a Terry Gilliam film in their collected lives, because I fucking loved this flick. If you don’t like Gilliam’s other movies, if you find them weird and creepy and pointless, well…I got nothin’ for ya. Why would you even go see this, then? If you find Terry Gilliam’s stuff magical and exhilarating and delightful and a bit scary, then strap in!

All the Gilliam signatures are there: expansive and inventive fantasy backdrops, wide-eyed innocents with smart mouths, grand decaying costumes, villains simultaneously charming and terrifying, twists that you don’t realize are there until they’ve long passed, creepy delightful music, and little people! If you try to nail the movie down before it’s finished, you’ll get confused and annoyed when things don’t seem to be making sense; he’s testing your assumptions and subconscious bias. If you enjoy the ride and accept what you’re shown, it all flows quite beautifully through to the end.

I had read that Gilliam rewrote the script to have Ledger’s part played by THREE different actors, and worried that it would seem contrived or awkward. In fact, it plays out so seamlessly that I can’t imagine how not doing so wouldn’t have detracted from the movie. I also never realized how much Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all look remarkably similar to Heath Ledger (besides all being criminally beautiful). The 3 substitutes clearly studied Ledger’s footage, and each one so fully emulated him that my suspension of disbelief was complete.

Lily Cole is quite compelling, especially for a young lady who’s most known as a model. Andrew Garfield is a young English actor I’ve not heard much of before, but is persuasively and scruffily adorable. Christopher Plummer is nuanced and powerful (and seems to me to be the future Gilliam himself). Tom Waits blows my mind for the second time this week (see The Book Of Eli), and takes so much visible delight in his role that I reflexively smiled every time he was onscreen (which considering his character’s nature, should bode very poorly for me). Verne Troyer, as the requisite little person, struggles mightily and ultimately cannot fully grasp the material, but I sort of feel like he should be rewarded for trying so hard at “real” acting. That said, there are so many extremely talented short-statured actors out there, maybe they could have cast someone more in line with the role than someone who’s already a minor star.

The true hallmark of a Terry Gilliam film for me is that moment when I’m going along, happily absorbing the fantastical pageant unfolding around me, and he hits me with some frightening image that has me sleeping with the light on for a week, then skips right on to something beautiful or silly like nothing happened and I didn’t just wet my pants in terror. I’m thinking of, say, the scary swollen baby-head masks in Brazil, or the bone-littered cages over oblivion in Time Bandits; deeply transgressive snapshots that go beyond “fucked-up shit”. Only for a moment, just enough to give me a heart attack, then sweeping around the bend back to delight, there there, it’s alright now. This movie did not actually have a moment like that for me (perhaps because I’m not really afraid of heights), which just made it all the sweeter for me.

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