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.