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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

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Chick-O-Meter-yellow-smChick-O-Meter-yellow-smChick-O-Meter-yellow-smChick-O-Meter-yellow-smChick-O-Meter-grey-sm Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

What’s an Imaginarium? Here’s a hint: it rhymes with aquarium, terrarium, and solarium and has something in common with those three. Glass! Here it’s in the form of a mystical mirror.

A horse-drawn collapsing stage show, out of place in the modern bustle of London town makes its slow, deliberate way down forlorn cobblestone streets and back alleys. Suddenly the body of the tall, thin carriage unfolds to reveal a whimsical setting whereupon an ancient wise man, a comely wood sprite, a dwarf creature of questionable species, and a jester-like crier bid an oral and visual invitation to the masses.

The mirror that fuels the Imaginarium is prominently displayed center stage, and an unexpected confrontation sends a belligerent drunk hurtling though the looking glass, which deposits him to a lush forest where he is taught a lesson. Seems there are many lessons this mirror can teach.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) issues a mandate to his troupe: no one goes through the mirror, absolutely no one. Of course they do, whether by accident or design and the story’s off on a surreal flight of fancy, incorporating giant stiletto heels, Faberge eggs, mile-high stilts, rivers, valleys, fields, candy colors, fears that take the shape of beasts and desires that take the shape of cheap motels. There are boat rides, police hijinx, fantasy landscapes, personal transformations and seductive pathways that lead to a whirlpool of motives, wishes, and fate.

Accompanying Parnassus on his journey (in both worlds) are his about-to-be sixteen-year-old daughter Valentina, (Lily Cole), pint-sized driver and part-time “creature” Percy (Verne Troyer), and Master of Ceremonies Anton (Andrew Garfield) who has an unrequited crush on Valentina. For her part, Valentina wishes for the stability of a stationary home complete with husband and children.

The players stumble upon a hanged man and rescue the fellow, named Tony (Heath Ledger – Johnny Depp, Jude Law & Colin Farrell). Tony has a shady past involving allegations of a children’s charity embezzlement and associations with a Russian criminal element. He also has ideas for how the Imaginarium could fleece victims…I mean, make money.

By the way, Parnassus is immortal and more than 1000 years old, thanks to winning a wager with age-old nemesis Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a gent who hails from down under, and I don’t mean Australia. He’s a betting man himself and challenges Parnassus in a race to gain possession of five souls. Here’s where the mirror comes in handy.

Tony’s smooth salesman-like approach to a refurbished Imaginarium show has the ladies lining up for adventure. Part of the magic here is that Tony, as a guide, becomes a shape shifter himself – well facially, anyway. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all get a shot at mirror-land, whether charming the fairer sex or fleeing from their own sordid past.

Valentina is the prize, to be collected by Mr. Nick on her sixteenth birthday if Parnassus loses the bet. The rest of the film is an adventure at breakneck speed, with tentacles of conflict in every direction. Valentina’s attracted to Tony and Anton is jealous and suspicious. Percy is a relentless naysayer. Parnassus and Valentina clash over lifestyle choices. Tony is a hunted man, his former Russian cohorts on his trail. Parnassus and Mr. Nick square off for Valentina’s soul. That kind of thing.

And always, as if a silent witness, the mirror sits waiting to take in its next hopeful, whether for refuge, enlightenment, or retribution, each according to his own psyche or imagination. It tempts, it bestows upon, it takes away from and then regurgitates its guests (well, sometimes). One never leaves unchanged if one is permitted to leave at all.

Tony’s past inevitably catches up with him, and rapid motion visuals and quicksilver plot developments during the last quarter of the film can seem random and disorienting. It’s as if Gilliam’s fanciful, ornate and sturdy fabric of time, space and pacing had unraveled and needed to be fixed quickly with an approaching deadline too abbreviated to properly end the project.

Christopher Plummer makes you feel his every ache, spiritual and physical. Heath Ledger retains some of his Joker snap and incorporates it into the chameleon that is Tony. Depp, Law and Farrell only enhance the persona further, each bringing a personal charisma to the role. Tom Waits is a sardonic, patient devil, well dressed and at his most dangerous when smiling. Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer provide a skepticism and comic relief, and Lily Cole, as the only lead female has the daunting role of appearing to be Everywoman without a proper roadmap to guide her.

Director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) gives great “view” illuminating the inside of his creativity to let us see it. You will recognize some of the stylized graphics from his Python days. His Ledger-demain, if you’ll forgive me, works here and the Tony quartet is as seamless as a good quilt. If only it didn’t unravel quite so much and then attempt to sew itself up with stitches that were too large to effectively close the gaps.

Still, it’s a worthwhile ride for most of the trip, and you may take that in any way you can imagine.

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