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Ten Word or Less Review: Beautiful, silken hair tangled around a greasy mess.

Where to start with “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”?  We could rehash the troubled career of Terry Gilliam which movie writers love to drone on about.  But that would be redundant.  We could talk about the untimely and tragic death of Heath Ledger which nearly derailed another of the unlucky director’s peculiar films.  But that would make you cry.  We could talk about how Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law who lend generous supporting roles which ‘finish’ Ledger’s performance.  That would seem gossipy.  We could talk about the seemingly brilliant casting of Tom Waits as Satan.  That turns out to not be as much fun as you think.  We could talk about any of these items but in a way all of that seems to be a bit of a dodge.  We should talk about the movie itself.  A strange, uneven, nutzoid, grab bag of cinema that in turn enthralls, bores, entrances and alienates to varying degrees.

Iconic British thespian Christopher Plummer is the Dr Parnassus of the title.  Dr. Parnassus has the ability to transport people to the place in their mind where their desires are met and their potential to be wonderful human beings can be achieved, all through the use of a magical doorway.  The good doctor is thousands of years old because of a wager he’s made with Satan (Tom Waits).  In exchange for immortality, and the ability to go on making people see their inner light, once Dr. Parnassus has a child, said child must be turned over to the dark lord on its 16th birthday.  Dr. Parnassus’s now mature daughter, Lily Cole, is fast approaching her much dreaded 16th birthday.  As the Doctor’s traveling, ramshackle Imaginarium, imagine a folding theater stage on wheels, makes its way across London, the troupe, including a magician (Andrew Garfield) and a dwarf (Verne Troyer), find an almost dead man hanging from a bridge by a noose.  They rescue the nearly dead stranger (Ledger) and the Doctor begins to think that the charming amnesiac may hold the key to saving his daughter.  It sounds weird to be sure, but straight forward enough in its own way.  A good set up for what could be a wild fantasy yarn of considerable strength.  And placed squarely in the hands of Terry Gilliam, he brings parts of the story to life in a way few others could ever realize.  And he also botches, drags out and nearly ruins so many other parts of it.

A few too many sequences of “Imaginarium” feel tone def and plodding.  Whenever Gilliam brings his film out of the fantasy land of Dr. Parnassus’s mind and into the world that is London of today, everything tends to drag like an old bag full of rocks.  Not by comparison to the mental, psycho trips Gilliam composes when someone goes through the doorway, but simply because he can’t make much of this simplistic narrative work effectively.  At its core this is a race against time story, but a sense of urgency is never delivered.  Gilliam can find very little rhythm or chemistry between his talented actors.  He seems to have been more worried about all the clutter and junk decorating the set than troubled by the flatfooted emotions happening between his characters.  He doesn’t craft much of an arc for anyone to follow through with, especially Ledger.

Much has been made of the fact that Ledger’s performance is incomplete, finished by Farrell, Depp and Law.  Despite this hindrance, Gilliam was able to construct a convincing gimmick to explain the new faces that make up Ledger’s absence.  The face changes don’t take much away as it seems like the character would’ve turned out the same regardless.  The bigger issue is that there’s little to no emotional connection with anyone here.  Ledger, and his doppelgangers, bandy about as best they can, but Ledger himself is tied down with a lot of the sluggish story that Gilliam can’t work through efficiently.  It seems the meat of his part was yet to be carried out, and by turns Farrell, Depp and Law get the shinier moments of the role.  All three do admirable work in unenviable circumstances.  Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus spends too much time spaced out or drunk.  We know he loves his daughter but he’s not a very engrossing central character.  The casting of Tom Waits as Satan seemed like inspired genius when first considered, but little comes of it.  Wait’s isn’t awful or out of place, but his low voiced grumble all feels a bit too low key and one note.  In essence, he isn’t trying.  His part as Satan does get a nice twist.  His is a Satan not always interested in winning the game, but more keen to keep playing, thus torturing you.

Reading all of this makes it sound as if “Parnassus” is some kind of monumental washout.  A chore to be endured.  It’s not.  Despite these glaring issues of story and character, Gilliam still manages to craft a film with incredible sequences that explode with ingenuity.  When the film leaves behind the lead-footed narrative obligations of the real world, “Imaginarium” takes flight like few films do.  Gilliam, even at his worst, has always been able to spread the visions of his cranium across the screen with some degree of entrancement.  When he opens up his skull and pours out the Daliesque visions of a woman’s coveted giant new shoes, stilts which reach the clouds, Satan and his prey dancing through the shards of broken mirrors, and scores of other acid induced imagery, he’s truly in his element.  These sequences make “Parnassus” a worthy venture, all the drudgery of the rest of the film floating away without effort.

I’m not sure what this unfortunate duality of the movie says about the teller of the story himself.  Gilliam has made fascinating movies, and this is as close to the spirit of one of his coveted classics that he’s made in ages.  But at the same time he’s either rusty with the parts of film that require real directorial skill to make things work as a whole, or he’s simply bored by them and he chose to dash through them as fast as he can.  The man who made “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys” seems unlikely to return at this point.  No matter the answer, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is a 50/50 experience of tripped out bliss married to a hobbled story arch full of unfulfilling character.  It’s worth seeing, warts and all, if only to revel in its fleeting moments of greatness.


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