Terry Gilliam, more than most filmmakers, is the kind of director you either love or hate. It’s a distinctive taste that even as a fan, I must admit, I’m not always up for. His latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is sure to divide its audience as well; but even at its low points it’s still admirable for its lofty ambitions.
The story is nothing if not epic. Basically, it’s about a monk and the devil challenging each other over who can win the most souls. Normally, I’d like to spend more than one sentence summarizing a film; but Gilliam’s not an easily understood filmmaker, and Parnassus is particularly non-linear – many basic story elements aren’t clearly explained until well into the second hour, and even then the story’s not clear.
Even fans have to admit Gilliam isn’t the most coherent story-teller. Sometimes, this works for his films (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and sometimes it works against them (The Brothers Grimm). In the case of Parnassus, the movie would be better served by a story that was made a bit more clear. It’s at least twenty minutes until you figure out plot point one, and you’re just sitting there hoping you don’t miss something important to the film.
Of course, most people will know this as “the last Heath Ledger film.” Unfortunately, it’s not Ledger’s greatest turn. It’s not a bad one, but compared to his takes on Ennis Del Mar and, (duh,) the Joker, his character Tony is pretty flat and uninteresting. It’s just a character who’s around to advance the plot.
But for all the complaining I’ve been doing, I still liked The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Whenever we actually enter the namesake Imaginarium, Gilliam gets full license to go off the wall insane with his set pieces, with ladders tall as sky scrapers and a river that turns into the devil, who, by the way, is perfectly played by Tom Waits.
The Imaginarium works as some sort of dreamworld where your wildest fantasy landscapes are realized, normally with cartoon physics. It’s pretty silly, and the CG isn’t the best I’ve seen; but it’s a great excuse to see Gilliam play around.
The overall picture isn’t super-effective – you feel like you’re an outsider looking into this playland more than you feel involved and invested. But it’s still fun for what it is, and anybody who appreciates a director trying to play outside of the mold should check it out.