The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I have never walked out of a film. Mostly because I’m choosy about what I watch at the cinema; inevitably, though, I’ve seen some execrable rubbish. But there’s always that tiny spark of desire to see what happens, or whether the thing can get any worse. I’ve cringed, sunk down in my seat, shaken my head in disbelief and covered my eyes but I’ve never walked out. After seeing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I can still say I’ve never walked out of a film. Because I was there to review it, I clenched my buttocks and weathered the vicissitudes of 122 minutes of unhinged bilge so you don’t have to, otherwise I’d have been several miles away by the time the credits rolled. I didn’t take one for the team, I took several, big ones.

For many, Terry Gilliam has a lifetime pass for his Python animations, Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s worked non-stop to make his films on his terms while still attracting a big name cast and keeping the bean-counters sweet enough to fund his ambition, but certain criticisms have always been levelled at him. Imaginarium provides his detractors with a smoking gun, a hacksaw, a pair of sturdy rubber gloves, several refuse sacks and a note that reads: “Lock me up and throw away the key – TG.”

Every Gilliamism is present and correct. Acres of dirty, ragged fabric, creaking machinery, pratfalls, precipices, the modern world’s unwelcome intrusion, eccentric vehicles navigating fantastickal terrain, questionable facial hair and more pratfalls. Landscapes and scenery crack and crumble, giant heads roam the skies and there are many, many stairs. Nailed to all this is a story which is, essentially, Faust, with Plummer in the role of Faust/Parnassus, Waits as the devil and Ledger as the wild card along for the ride. Wild card … sorry, that was completely unintentional. There’s enormous potential here, but Gilliam seems to think that these ingredients will magically arrange themselves into a film, and maybe they’d be better off unhindered by any kind of structure. The script consists largely of short, hammily-delivered monologues that only occasionally relate to each other and the pace and tone are all over the shop. Ironically, in Parnassus’ first encounter with the devil, a storytelling theme is introduced clumsily, only to disappear without trace. Gilliam insists on capturing his actors’ every twitch and mannerism before moving on to the next scene. Ledger plays mysterious stranger Tony with little restraint and in the Imaginarium – a sort of dreamscape behind a magic mirror in Parnassus’ caravan – he’s replaced by Depp, Law and Farrel, each bringing a fresh set of quirks to delay the next scene’s arrival. The viewer is assaulted by a slew of tics, grimaces, mirrors, collapsing scenery, cartoon landscapes and shouted dialogue and it quickly becomes impossible to care.

Since The Fisher King, Gilliam seems to have viewed mental illness and destitution as comical and/or noble. Parnassus spends much of the film drunk, defeated and derelict, but at least he’s not his sorry sidekick Percy (Troyer) who, as we are reminded repeatedly, is small even for a midget! A weak enough single-use joke, worthless as a running gag. Percy retains a tiny shred of dignity by not reacting to the constant humiliation that befalls him, although it’s possible that Troyer just couldn’t be bothered to act. On the plus side: model Cole, as Parnassus’ daughter Valentina, takes an enthusiastic stab at doing some actressing, while her paramour, Parnassus’ lovestruck assistant Anton, is played by Garfield giving a pitch-perfect impression of Martin Freeman. Plummer underplays the wretched Parnassus, which in this context is like entering a Morris Minor in a monster truck event, and pencil-’tached Waits is an agreeably sleazy, tacky devil.

Yes, it’s a sad fact that Ledger died a third of the way through filming. Bringing in three different actors rather than a single replacement or some budget-busting CGI trickery was a canny move on Gilliam’s part; the change is less jarring, more in keeping with the overall tone. Had he lived … the film would still be a huge, hollow, noisy, hopelessly uneven shambles. Imaginarium makes The Adventures of Baron Munchausen look tightly plotted, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seem focussed – and Twelve Monkeys contains more laughs. It’s a seemingly endless succession of disappointing, disconnected, bombastic set pieces, with every situation and character milked dry before moving on.

It’s an important distinction, that between something you don’t like and something which is, in absolute terms, bad. I didn’t like the film, and I’ve revoked Terry Gilliam’s life pass, but this review should provide a balanced, objective summation. So here it is: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the encrusted jism in the toe of Satan’s wank sock. Thank you.

Official Site
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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