As a Gilliamite of yore, I was of course looking forward to THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS, despite snooty reviews in the British press (who complained that BRAZIL “lacked originality”) and despite the calamity of star Heath Ledger’s death. I like Gilliam and I like what he does, the only serious exception being THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where the constant tampering of the Weinstein Brothers grimmer could be blamed for much of the film’s tired and witless drag.
Having found a radical solution to his star’s death — replacing Ledger, when he goes through the magic mirror, with three other A-list stars — Gilliam seemed to have once more completed a film more or less the way he wanted it completed, which is the way it should be. The trouble is… or the trouble seems to be… that Gilliam needs a stronger script collaborator to funnel his gushing mind towards some desirable destination. Writing with actor Charles McKeown, who collaborated on BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN, Gilliam has an old friend to back him up. But perhaps its significant that BRAZIL also benefited from the dramaturgical prowess of Tom Stoppard, a man who knows a thing about structure, and MUNCHAUSEN, though far more shapeless (agreeably so, for the most part) did have the original tales to fall back on.
In DR PARNASSUS we get pretty much undiluted Gilliam creation, spilling out over the screen as if he simply unlocked his forehead and a stream of molten imagination came spewing out of his brainhole, bathing us all in its steaming ichor. As delightful as that sounds, the effect is self-nullifying because there’s no base of story to support it. There’s not even a coherent premise. Nor is there a structure, a main character (and this has nothing to do with Ledger’s demise), a theme, message, internal logic or valid satiric angle. It’s soup.
[Parnassus sends unsuspecting members of the public into a world he creates with his mind, where they have to make mysterious choices, resulting in either salvation (of some unspecified kind) or damnation (literal death and falling into the hands of the Devil). This makes Parnassus not a so terribly nice guy, in my book. But the victims of his show are one-dimensional class stereotypes, proles and toffs, and we’re not encouraged to give two shits about them. And the mysterious choices made in this airless green-screen world make no sense to me: a bunch of Russian gangsters are damned for wanting to be with their mother in the Old Country. The desire for a one-night stand with Johnny Depp is considered worthy of damnation. Hell with that.]
Much of the imagery is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of it. I loved the monastery where Parnassus first meets the Devil — an impossibly sculptural Himalayan folly full of levitating monks — and the film’s use of London as backdrop is often beautiful It’s been an age since I’ve seen a London-set film which showcased it’s locations as if they were interesting (most London-based filmmakers are bored of London and bored of film — Gilliam, whatever his vices, is not). But the only times the film felt like it had any control over its own effects was (1) the Johnny Depp cameo — Depp just makes things focus, he reduces every other element to scene-setting, and blasts the clutter away — and (2) a sequence when the imaginary world of a charity ball / awards ceremony starts to break apart: the sudden rifts of black space provide abrupt and truly welcome relief from the mass of meaningless detail that’s been fighting for our attention.
It’s tempting to simply assume that the star’s death threw the project off course, and that’s certainly a possibility — it must have been an awful thing to face. But Ledger was never at the centre of the story, unless some massive rewriting has gone on. There’s no centre. Parnassus seems like he should be the key character, since he at least has a goal — saving his daughter from the devil. But he spends much of the action in a trance, drunk, or narrating unnecessary flashbacks. The excess screen time is scooped up by Ledger, who may in fact be the villain, and by young Andrew Garfield (clearly talented but trying too hard). Ledger is called Tony and Garfield plays Anton, which suggests some kind of duality or connection, but none emerges.
We also have Lily Cole, an unusually structured supermodel with an apple for a head — she’s unquestionably beautiful, and gives a creditable performance, but it’s not in synch with anyone else’s. Plummer bellows and drools like Lear, Garfield is tricks and tics, and Verne Troyer delivers his lines by rote, or from the world’s smallest autocue.** Gilliam has often thrown together unlikely combinations of British and American talent (plus the occasional Italian or Australian), but this time the sense of a troupe just isn’t there. Amid all the shouting and showing off, Cole’s more muted work is very welcome.
Maybe this will play better a second time around? TIME BANDITS improved for me on reviewing, as did MUNCHAUSEN and JABBERWOCKY. But my favourites, BRAZIL and TWELVE MONKEYS, were immediately successful on pretty much every level. I haven’t seen anything this bad from Gilliam since THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where at least he had the excuse of appalling executive interference. But that misbegotten project shares with this one a glaring flaw that has nothing to do with budgetary limitations or studio supervision or behind-the-scenes tragedy: very poor dialogue.
I do think perhaps the film was more unfinished at the time of Ledger’s death than has been suggested. The movie takes ages to get going, with endless digressions into flashback and introductions of unnecessary subplots. The strange symbols written on Ledger’s forehead are never explained. I’m reminded of the John Landis episode of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, where what seems like a botched bit of writing is simply the result of a patch-up job on the available footage shot before the star’s death. In both cases, what might have made a moving and evocative fragment (Do I perhaps love fragments more than I love complete films?) has become a dead and disjointed “completed work,” made not for audiences but for the insurers.
*I’ve heard that Troyer has a bodyguard, who is also a little person. But an incredibly muscular one. I love this.