Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Let me see if I can explain this one. Christopher Plumber is Dr. Parnassus, a man who “won” the gift of immortality from the devil (who masquerades as a man called Mr. Nick). However, Parnassus still aged even though he was immortal, so he foolishly made another deal with Mr. Nick that any child he fathered would belong to Mr. Nick when they turned 16. Now, Parnassus’ daughter Valentina is on the verge of her 16th birthday, so Mr. Nick struck a new arrangement: Valentina can stay with whoever wins five souls first. How does one win souls? Through the Imaginarium, a gateway into Parnassus’ mind where a visitor can live out their fantasies. As well, a visitor would be tempted by Mr. Nick whereby the Nick can take the visitor’s soul, or the visitor would be tempted by Parnassus toward some sort of positive enlightenment and Parnasus could claim that soul as being “won” by him. So, Dr. Parnassus travels around with his side-show attraction (the Imaginarium), accompanied by a little person (Vern Troyer), slight-of-hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Valentina. Along the way, they run into a man left for dead named Tony (Heath Leger – you were wondering where he’d fit in, eh?), a mysterious man with amnesia, who becomes a boon to the traveling show by attracting more people into the Imaginarium. But there may be something far more sinister to Tony than meets the eye as Parnassus struggles to win more souls than Mr. Nick in the Imaginarium.

Whew, well despite my awkward explanation of this film, there’s way more too it than that and it actually does all make sense. The story is a kind of an epic tale about vivid imagination in a world that doesn’t listen anymore. That theme is hit upon time and again in the movie which I found fascinating. Parnassus insists that the world “rule itself” and there are numerous examples of imagination “enlightening” visitors in the Imaginarium, and references to people losing their grip on reality by not embracing imagination, fun and wonder.

Of course, the shadow befalling this entire film is the untimely death of Heath Ledger. All of his Imaginarium scenes are shot with other actors portraying the Tony character (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), employing the idea that Tony’s appearance shifts whenever he’s in the Imaginarium and Heath Ledger is Tony’s “real world” appearance. This idea of shifting appearances is awkwardly introduced in the first scene where a drunken brute chases Valentina into the Imaginarium and becomes another person. But it sort of makes sense for the Tony character since he’s revealed to be hiding various secrets from Parnassus’ troop. Depp, Law and Farrell represent the different guises of Tony, I guess. It hangs together way better than I expected.

Some minor quibbles I had with the film: one of the main characters dies toward the end and nobody seems to care. I recall this kind of thing happening in other Terry Gilliam movies, but it was still a little jarring in this one. As well, Tony is seen helping Parnassus and even directing unsuspecting visitors to the Imaginarium away from Mr. Nick’s temptations, showing a lot of virtue in the character. Yet toward the end the audience is expected to believe that Tony is this horrible villain that steals money from children’s charities from around the world (or something like that), to the point that we’re expected to root for Parnassus when he has a final confrontation with Tony, outwitting him and killing him. I know the charity thing is hinted at in various parts of the film, but it still seems like a weak, cheap and quick way of turning Tony into a villain for the simple reason of providing an ending for the story, and the buy-in for the audience to then invest emotionally in Tony being a villain worthy of being killed seems to come out of left field.

Still, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is an inventive, unique film and all of the scenes in the Imaginarium are pretty creative and provoke a feeling of wonder. The story is definitely different than your usual fare and it all makes sense in its own way.

4 out of 5.


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