The inaccessibility of Mr. Gilliam ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The inaccessibility of Mr. Gilliam

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
My rating:

I remember watching Time Bandits and Brazil when I was small, on good ol' terrestrial TV. What I remember about them is that they were both absurdist comedies, with the second having somewhat blacker humour. The last Terry Gilliam film I've seen was 12 Monkeys, which I was again too young to know what to make of. (I'd love to be able to watch it again.) But now I am at the peak of my film-analyzing skills, so this makes the first Gilliam movie that I can absolutely fairly judge and review.

And I'm still not sure what to make of it.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) runs an old-fashioned traveling theatre troupe that also consists of his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his barker Anton (Andrew Garfield), and a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer). In actual fact, Parnassus is thousands of years old, having made a bargain with the Devil (Tom Waits) for immortality in return for Valentina's soul on her sixteenth birthday. One day they rescue a mysterious man named Tony (Heath Ledger) whom they find hanging from a noose; he claims amnesia, but joins their troupe. As Valentina's birthday draws near, the Devil makes another bet with Parnassus for the souls of his audience members, whom Tony (Johnny Depp/Jude Law/Colin Farrell) brings through Parnassus' magic mirror - which is in fact a portal into fantastical, imaginary worlds. Tony helps by making the show more contemporary and attractive, but he has dark secrets of his own.

"Imaginarium of Doctor... apatu." That's what I mumbled sheepishly to the counter guy when I bought my ticket. That mouthful of a title is in fact emblematic of what struck me the most about the movie - it's bloody inaccessible. It's just not easy to enjoy, or even comprehend. The scenes inside the mirror are wild and wondrous and very, very surreal - and surreality is something best taken in small doses. There are ideas and themes that are brought up in one scene and then never again. Parnassus is immortal, but he's always been accompanied by Percy - and why he's immortal, or why he always follows Parnassus, is never made clear. In fact, lots of things are not made clear - why certain people's faces change as they enter the mirror, but certain others' don't, is never explained beyond a device to allow Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to sub in for Heath Ledger.

Even the characters are pretty hard to get into. Who's the protagonist here? Who's story is this really? You'd think Tony should be our POV character; if a film intends to bring us into a fantastical world, standard screenwriting wisdom entails that we should see it through the eyes of someone to whom all of it is as new as it is to us. But he isn't. In fact, the script rarely allows us to get a true handle on any of the characters. Andrew has a long-standing unrequited love for Valentina, and Parnassus wants to save his daughter's soul from the Devil. Yet neither of them really come across as sympathetic, nor do their needs provide any momentum for the plot. Tony especially is almost a complete cypher; we're just never given to understand what his role is in the story until the film's climax. All this makes the bulk of the movie dull, puzzling and frustrating.

So it's a good thing when that climax comes along and the story finally makes sense. And once it does, it's a pretty interesting one. I've always been partial towards fantasy, and I like that particular subgenre that involves outwitting the Devil's deals (although I don't know why he, being the Devil, would ever even honour a deal). This movie has a nice twist on it that I rather liked. The third act is where things finally start to get interesting, which is one of its two saving graces. The other is the quite frankly gorgeous look of the whole thing. Everything from Parnassus' horse-drawn stage-cum-mobile home, to the fantastical worlds within the mirror, are very imaginatively realized, and provide something nice to look at while the story meanders along.

Speaking of nice things to look at - Lily Cole may, in my humble opinion, be the film's most spectacular special effect. She is one yummy specimen; I was quite content to fix my gaze on her whenever she was onscreen, and she's surprisingly (and pleasingly) buxom for a runway model. She's also surprisingly good for a fledgling actress, which bodes well for my chances of watching another movie graced by her pulchritudinous presence in the future. Okay, okay, I should probably talk about Heath Ledger, seeing as this is his final film; he died before completing filming. You can see how good he was, how fully he throws himself into his roles, which makes his death all the more tragic. Depp, Law and Farrell all do pretty good jobs of mimicking his performance, and the transitions could almost be seamless. Christopher Plummer is decent, but Tom Waits seems like he should be a lot more fun.

And there really isn't much fun to be had, although the curious thing is that it feels like there should be. It's a whimsical fantasy adventure after all; but its whimsy just never translates into any actual laughs, nor does its adventure ever feel thrilling or suspenseful. And all that surreality never really comes together into anything that makes any sense. The most frustrating thing about this movie is the sense that somewhere, within Terry Gilliam's mind - and, possibly, in his original vision of the film in which Ledger completed his role - it does all make sense. But it just doesn't let us in there.

NEXT REVIEW: Duhai Si Pari-Pari
Expectations: dare I hope?