Out of focus
I’ve made no secret of my love for director Terry Gilliam throughout the years. Even when his movies are terrible—Tideland being his worst—he still manages to get his crazed sense of invention across. Unfortunately, in his more recent films, that sense of invention has gone hand-in-hand with an annoying lack of focus.
Most movie buffs and Gilliam fans know that his productions are often plagued with difficulty. The studio taking Brazil hostage, the over-budget drama of Baron Munchausen, and the complete destruction of the original production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote are but a few of his legendary travails. Most distressing was the death of star Heath Ledger during production of Gilliam’s latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Ledger had already filmed a bunch of scenes when he passed away in January 2008. Rather than scrap the film, Gilliam and friends came up with an idea to keep the project moving forward. The title character, played by Christopher Plummer, has a traveling road show that features a mirror. On the other side of that mirror is a “land of imagination” that feeds off the desires of the person who has gone through it. After the death of Ledger, the land of imagination also became a place where your appearance can change.
Gilliam sets up this trick with his intro, where we see a lecherous man’s face change into somebody else after a mirror journey. Later in the film, when Ledger goes through the mirror in three sequences, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell then play his part, in that order.
It’s a nifty trick, and it seems right at home in a Gilliam movie. Each of the actors, especially Farrell, bring a fun spark to the film. Gilliam comes up with a way to let the audience always sense the presence of Ledger throughout the movie, even when somebody else is playing his part. And Ledger, in his modern-day London scenes, is his normally reliable self, and it’s a good thing his final work was able to grace movie screens.
Alas, the movie itself doesn’t work as a whole. The main story involves Parnassus and his deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), a deal where he wagered the soul of his first born, Valentina (Lily Cole). The business between Parnassus and Valentina is garbled stuff and failed to keep my interest. I found myself waiting for the trips through the mirror for moments when the movie could pick up the pace a little bit.
As for the usually reliable Gilliam visuals, there are a few truly majestic ones. I liked the Parnassus balloon, featuring his nose and eyes. The Parnassus cop statue that pops up in the desert is another good one and has a cool Monty Python vibe.
But most of the fantastical imagery is done in by glossy CGI. Gilliam has gotten by with miniatures and hand-drawn animation before, but CGI started to make its way into his productions with The Brothers Grimm. This time, it’s almost all CGI, and the effects team simply fails to capture the magic of Gilliam’s past creations. It feels like a poorly produced, half-hearted Gilliam impersonation.
In the end, I have to give Gilliam the benefit of the doubt. He managed to put together a film that isn’t half bad considering the circumstances. Most directors would’ve probably thrown in the towel and walked away.
The movie is worth seeing to experience Ledger’s swan song, but it’s distressing to see such a great director continue to lose his touch. There’s been some talk of his reviving The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Johnny Depp and Robert Duvall taking over the title role. That certainly sounds promising, and I still believe this director has some great work left in him. He just needs to calm down a bit.