4 January 2010 | thesubstream
Rajo loves it, but knows it won't work... how tragic...
Just before leaving to go and see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, the latest offering from the perpetually 'unlucky' yet stubbornly visionary Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Time Bandits), I asked a good friend, also a movie buff, if he wanted to come with.
"No way," he proclaimed. "I can't sit through a Terry Gilliam movie." Having sat through the 2 hour + film myself, I'm convinced he made the right decision, as I even had a tough time with it. It's definitely too long, rarely makes sense and feels as though it might unravel at any minute. As usual, Gilliam's imagination takes over the film, running completely wild in every direction, resulting in a rich visual feast that's a delight to look at. As usual, though, this comes at the expense of clarity and accessibility, which is unfortunate, especially so considering the multiple real-world challenges that severely disrupted the film's production and its theoretical comprehensibility anyway. Is Gilliam ever gonna catch a break? And, if he does, will he be relaxed enough to create something that more that a handful of folks might like? This film's script (mostly unchanged, despite production difficulties) will definitely try one's patience; characters make weird choices and important plot elements are left unexplained. As a decision seemingly made to serve the story, most of Gilliam's film operates on a kind of dream logic, which at the best of times put a huge grin on my face and made me feel all gooey inside and at the worst of times pulled me right out of the film, faster than a spilled cold Coke in the lap. As an example of the latter, one would think that Gilliam, having famously made the creative decision to bolster the late Heath Ledger's incomplete performance with the work of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel and Jude Law, might have installed some sort of interesting yet logical plot device allowing that singular character to appear physically different at times. Sadly, the reasoning is, for some reason, half-baked - the other characters in the film are just as puzzled as the audience is at the changes, even going way too far with their "No, wait... who are you?" line of questions. If one's own characters seem to think it's out of place, then the audience will have no choice but to question it as well. Disbelief: unsuspended and resolute in its anchor-like stolidity (how's that for a sentence?).
Now, despite all that, I absolutely, positively and without question adored The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Because Gilliam is really, really good at what he does best. It's far and away one of my favourite films of the year, and easily the most important film of Gilliam's career, warts and all. With Parnassus, he continues to stylistically explore potent ideas about the power of storytelling and imagination, and what happens when the worlds of fables and make-believe collide with our cynical, sober reality - all concepts I personally go nuts over. When in this mode, he always managed to sub-textually raise questions about imagination and dreams as important sign-posts in our collective unconscious, lighting the way to collective and individual hope, joy and happiness. The difference with Parnassus is that Gilliam has finally made a film that is explicitly and without question about that exact thing, positing at its core that stories and imagination and new ideas are the very things that hold the fabric of the universe together. A beautiful idea, and as relevant as ever considering Hollywood's constant push for the bottom line over creative integrity, and Gilliam's own personal feelings regarding his stifled creativity and the uncertainty of his place in modern cinema. And if you're anything like me (Naive? Simple?), this stuff, when fused with Gilliam's impeccable eye for composition and always fantastic production design will help you forget that the film isn't perfect or logical or accessible.
Despite all of the aforementioned flaws in the story (which, understandably, most movie-goers may have a low tolerance for), The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is actually quite brilliant, and contains some of the single best movie moments and ideas seen all year, and by dint of its stellar cast (besides Heath Ledger and friends, the film stars Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits, both in memorable roles), serves as a showcase for some of the best talent working in film at the time of production. But because of its flaws, it probably won't generate the word of mouth necessary to bring the crowds (and as such, the box office receipts) that Gilliam so desperately needs in order to continue to be able to make films of this scale. Which is too bad, as directors like Gilliam, who so zealously worship at the alter of imagination and visual splendour with a slavish dedication to film-making craft are not so high in abundance. Maybe if he was actually able to, you know, make a film without having outside elements messing up his plans, he might actually live up to his ultimate potential as an original story-teller able to easily reach the masses. As it stands, though, his status as such, as well as the very fabric of the universe it seems, continue to be under threat.
My score? 7/10.