12 January 2010

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR GILLIAM

Imagine that you are very good friends with noted crazed visionary director Terry Gilliam. One day, you and he are having a slumber party, and he says, "I have a marvelous game for us to play" (yes, Gilliam speaks like an Edwardian tween. Work with me). Then, he bundles you up in a pillowcase large enough to accommodate a person of your size, hangs it from a tree, and starts to throw paving bricks at you while you twist about helplessly.

My question is, does this event make you value his friendship any less?

For what I have described is not altogether unlike watching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the twelfth feature directed in whole or in part by the plagued filmmaker in 34 years, and one that feels less like a movie, and more like aggravated assault with production design. On the face of it, this should not come as a surprise, given that all of Gilliam's films save 1991's The Fisher King are noted, maybe above all else, for the intensity and totality with which he creates a completely new world from his own exceedingly identifiable imagination. This is even more the case with Imaginarium than usually, for here Gilliam even takes a production design co-credit with Anastasia Mansaro, only the second such credit in his career (after Monty Python's Life of Brian, which was otherwise directed by Terry Jones). So basically what I'm saying, is, the Gilliam flows rather freely with this particular movie, and that is both terrifying and exhilarating, depending on your tastes and tolerance for the filmmaker's particular brand of heavily nightmarish whimsy. I am on the one hand very glad that he got to make something so indulgent and personal; and on the other hand, it's so very indulgent and personal.

Here is what I think: given the miseries that have tormented every project he's tried (and usually failed) to get off the ground since completing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, it seems that Gilliam has become so frightful of bringing any movie to completion that he goes overboard trying to get as many ideas spit out as he possibly can - it was certainly the case with the flimsy The Brothers Grimm (still his worst movie), a project he self-evidently took just because he knew that he could get it financed, and his distaste for everything but the sets is plain in every shot. It strikes here, too, in a film that is powerfully overburdened with ideas, visions, and concepts, and rather than teasing any of them out, the director insists on them with great force and urgency that is rather more off-putting than entrancing; what should be light and delicate as an eggshell is instead just pushy, clamoring, and much too eager that we should be constantly amazed by Gilliam's wild-eyed visions and eccentric cinematography - you know, that rather wide angle, rather flat, but not exactly "fisheye" quirk that pops up in, at the least, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing, but gets more of a workout here than in all of those films put together, and for much less obvious purpose. In effect, this is a movie designed and directed by the same Terry Gilliam who appeared as Prologue to the little-scene Tideland: a scary-as-hell madman who thunders out at the audience that "YOU SHALL FIND THIS CHARMING AND DELIGHTFUL!" with a dictatorial menace far, far removed from the intended mood of the piece.

The plot is rather more bent than I care to grapple with in just a little synopsis, but in essence, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is hundreds if not thousands of years old, and has been touring the world with his Imaginarium, a trailer-mounted show in which he uses his mystic powers to give a person the ability to walk inside their dearest fantasies. Along the way, he's formed a sort of antagonistic friendship with the Devil (Tom Waits), constantly making ill-advised bets, the latest of which involves the soul of Parnassus's dear daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), just a few days shy of her 16th birthday and thus the moment when she is to be turned over to Old Scratch. The only way out is for Parnassus to save more souls than the Devil can corrupt, but people being such unmitigated assholes, he's not having much success.

Enter Tony (Heath Ledger), a disgraced financier who has lately been involved in a terrible scandal concerning a children's charity, although neither Parnassus nor his assistants, Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), know anything about that. A born con artist, Tony quickly gets the Imaginarium running at a fever pitch, forcing the Devil to up his own attempts to win his bet, and thus it is that Tony is caught in the middle of a conflict he doesn't comprehend at all, flashing back and forth into fantasies, and finding himself transforming into other men in the process (played, in order, by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell).

(In case you were wondering, the only way that it could be more clear that the director intended Parnassus, named for the mountain where the Muses lived in the film's one and only stab at subtlety, to be his own personal stand-in - a threadbare imaginative genius trying to show people wonders, even though they mostly ignore him! - would be if the movie were rather titled The Imaginarium of Doctor Gary Tilliam).

There are massive story problems here, but in the main they are exactly the sort of problems that you get to wave away with an effortless, "oh, but it's a fairy tale": and of course, many people would rather not do so, but I for one have never hidden my general disdain for "story logic above all" arguments. At the same time, the chaotic morass that the plot falls into during its last 20 minutes would take an awfully large hand-wave to clear it up - I imagine that Ledger's death right smack in the midst of production made things hell on the writers, and while the "Four Tonys" conceit at least allows the film to exist, it seems at least possible that the end had to be massively transformed.

At any rate, if that was the biggest problem with Imaginarium, but Gilliam's famed visionary gifts were intact, I think we could mostly go home happy. The greater problem is then that the film looks rather too cluttered and busy to have the imaginative appeal of a great design-driven fantasy. Gilliam has fallen in love with CGI, it would appear, and while Imaginarium is not remotely as tawdry and slick-looking as, say The Lovely Bones, it is unequivocally the case that, given the opportunity to make anything, the director makes too much of an effort to make everything, and the result is an unlovely hodge-podge of notions and ideas (some of them transparently lifted from his groundbreaking animations from Monty Python's Flying Circus) that does not entrance so much as it depresses, and ultimately confuses - again, the last 20 minutes are so helplessly over-stuffed that it's just not fun at all to watch. This isn't the first time that Gilliam has dabbled in kitchen-sink design philosophy; but in Brazil, it was a sign that the protagonist was crazy, and in Fear and Loathing, a sign that the protagonist was Hunter S. Thompson. Here, it's undisciplined and unmotivated, and even if those two things were not so, it would still be too redolent of other things he's already done.

It seems unsporting, on top of all that, to complain about the acting, but it really must be done: outside of The Brothers Grimm, this is the worst-acted of all Gilliam's films. Not across the board: Plummer is as reliable as ever, and Waits is positively inspired, by far the most interesting character both as conceived and as executed. I also rather liked Andrew Garfield, giving a fairly grounded performance that keeps the drama from spinning off. But the four Tonys disappoint, not least because Ledger's untimely death keeps him from actually getting into the meat of the character, and so that actor's final performance is brutally flat. As for Depp, Law, and, Farrell; well, what the hell were they supposed to do? They were trying to play somebody else's character, and that sort of thing really never works. Depp marginally comes out the best of them, but it's like comparing three kinds of processed cheese. Verne Troyer is witheringly bad in a "wise dwarf" role that desperately required an actor with gravitas and the ability to deliver a line convincingly, and the nicest thing I can say about Lily Cole is that her face has a very weird shape that works for the movie.

At any rate, all of the performances tend to get swallowed up; this movie is all about the design, the curiously mannered and irritating cinematography used to express that design, and Gilliam's manic hope that we will be constantly amazed by the scope and scale of his wondrous imagination. I have been in the past, and I hope that I will be in the future. But here, I was just kind of worn out. Oh, the imagination is there all right, but the wonder is a touch curdled.

5/10

7 comments:

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Stephen said...

"Then, he bundles you up in a pillowcase large enough to accommodate a person of your size, hangs it from a tree, and starts to throw paving bricks at you while you twist about helplessly."

That seems a bit extreme for a 5/10 review.

Mr. K said...

I think Gilliam is suggesting we take a harsher view of our "prophet of wonder" than you feel. Parnassus is a drunk and a failure, as much by his own hand as any one else's. I think the clue is that bit in the monastery in the beginning, when he talks about how his work is unnecessary because someone else is telling his story. Ultimately, he seems to forget this, to his cost, and privileges himself as the storyteller instead of the story.

Of course, I think Gilliam doesn't execute that part very well. But I think it's there.

Mr. K said...

But congratulations on making some sense out of the narrative. It's a very difficult story, and it's not helped by the fact that Tony ends up being a subplot turned into the plot.

Rebecca said...

The first thing I thought while watching Johnny Depp was this is what happens when Captain Jack Sparrow meets Hunter S. Thompson. Maybe that's just me...

However the elderly couple behind me (did I mention I keep seeing movies with theater talkers?) was positive that Colin Farrell was Johnny Depp.

As for the movie in general, at one point I was all set to call it my favorite of Gilliam's films. But then that last 20 minutes happened, and I really didn't know what to think after that. And not that I've been thinking about this for days on end, but over a month later, I still don't know what I think of it. And the fact that the end bugged me so much is sticking with me more than the stuff I actually liked, so I guess that means it's not my favorite.

Poe said...

Let me make a brief comment about our unlikely hero/wiseman:

Gilliam, I think, had imagined the dwarf as being his unlikely hero; words of wisdom coming from an unexpected or minimized symbol in society -- though, upon shooting the various speech acts given by Percy, Gilliam should have had the wherewithal/self-reflex to recognize that, well, it just didn't work; we really gotta shoot this again!

-- Gilliam's "Idea" of Percy didn't quite match up with the reality of Verne Troyer and his ability to deliver a dramatic and serious line [cue the unintended laughter at such a unlikely 'unlikely hero']. It seems that Gilliam's ideal of imagination got in the way of stark reality. I think this particular dynamic was at play in the larger aspects of the film, like plot [no comment]

Furthermore, the dialogue and acting was absolutely horrible - a plateau of glib side-comments that do nothing for that ever elusive,um, "plot". Though I will say Anton, played by Andrew Garfield, is an exception, pulling off a somewhat decent character [a real talent].

A 5 out of 10 is quite generous! --But then again, it was Ledger's last film... (Gotta show some mercy.)