Review: `Doctor Parnassus' a farcical juggling act
By JAKE COYLE, AP Entertainment Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is more than a peculiar coda for Heath Ledger. It's not just a trivia answer — though that may well be its fate.
"Parnassus" goes down in the books as another entry in Gilliam's history of remarkable production misfortunes, including the shuttering of his "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" and the tragic loss of his star, Ledger, while filming this movie.
With relatively few changes, Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown refashioned the script so that Ledger's part could be finished with three actors filling in. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell came to the rescue.
The resulting film is an outlandish juggling act. It teeters, creaks and breaks at the seams, but somehow holds together better than you would expect and better than such an extravagant farce should. It ultimately spins out of control, but one still leaves the theater impressed by Gilliam's resilient skill at creating such ornate tales.
In modern-day London along the shadows of the River Thames, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) leads his traveling show on a large, unwieldy horse-drawn carriage. With him are his 15-year-old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); his sidekick, Percy (Verne Troyer); and the young performer Anton (Andrew Garfield).
They are a ramshackle lot of apparently faded glory, dressed in Victorian garb and covered in dirty makeup. For drunks spilling out of techno clubs, they offer the gift of story and imagination.
When someone takes the stage, Dr. Parnassus meditates and the volunteer goes through a mirror. On the other side is a world of imagination.
One of the film's failings is that it doesn't quite establish what this world represents. But the surrealism is wonderful, very much reminiscent of the animations Gilliam created with Monty Python.
All who enter are eventually given a vague, symbolic choice between virtue and vice, the latter tantalizing offered by Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a devil in a bowler hat. Those who choose well emerge from the mirror exuberant and healed; those who don't never return.
We learn that Dr. Parnassus gained his powers in a deal with Mr. Nick struck more than 1,000 years ago. In a second deal, he traded his immortality for youth, promising his daughter to Mr. Nick when she turns 16.
Squinty and wearing a thin mustache, Waits plays Mr. Nick as a likable troublemaker; a good sport who relishes a bet and even dryly urges Dr. Parnassus to "accentuate the positive." Arriving days before their deadline, he strikes another bargain: Dr. Parnassus can keep his daughter if he can win five souls before Mr. Nick does.
And as any baseball fan knows, anything can happen in a five-game series.
While the Imaginarium strives for success, they rescue a man in a white suit they find hanging from a noose under a bridge — our harrowing, creepy first sight of Ledger. The troupe takes him in and soon finds the man is useful in bringing crowds to the Imaginarium.
This is Ledger as a showman. He's charismatic and charming, easily winning over volunteers. But he's also jittery from the anxiety of the secrets he keeps from his new friends.
Ledger's performance outside of the mirror is complete but somewhat one-dimensional. He never got the chance to play the scenes inside the mirror — and that's where the battle for his soul takes place.
On three separate trips into the mirror, Depp, Law and Farrell play Ledger's character. In the CGI-created fantasy world of the Imaginarium, it's a plausible shift. Of the bunch, Farrell is the most natural and dynamic.
For all its bizarre contraptions, Gilliam's film is essentially about a father's misdeeds coming back to haunt him. The dependably excellent Plummer plays Dr. Parnassus with weariness, like an artist gone too long without an audience.
One is tempted to compare "Doctor Parnassus" to another film making the case for wonder: James Cameron's "Avatar." Cameron's fantasy is bright colors and violence, good and evil. Gilliam's is a faded, absurdist magic that strikes more true to the messiness of life.
Messy is one thing, but overstuffed is another. Gilliam remains a talented juggler — now if only he would toss fewer things in the air.
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.
Running time: 122 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.
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