Eric D. Snider

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Movie Review

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: D+

Released: December 25, 2009


Directed by:


You know who would love "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"? Terry Gilliam. It's bizarre and whimsical and often beautiful to look at, and it makes no sense whatsoever. It's totally something Terry Gilliam would dig!

Wait, what? He directed it? And co-wrote the screenplay? Oh. Well, I guess that explains that.

As for who other than Terry Gilliam might enjoy it, I'm at a loss. It's famous now primarily for being Heath Ledger's last film -- he died before shooting was complete -- but we might want to go back to thinking "The Dark Knight" was Ledger's final movie. This one is baffling, obtuse, and tiresome, like listening to someone tell you about a dream they had. For two hours.

"Imaginarium" is about mysterious old Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who operates a traveling sideshow with the assistance of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who claims to be only 12 but is clearly much older, and a crew that includes a dwarf (Verne Troyer) and a regular guy named Anton (Andrew Garfield). There is a mirror on the stage of this sideshow, and if you walk through the mirror you are transported into your imagination, or possibly into Dr. Parnassus' imagination, and it's really crazy there. People aren't supposed to be just randomly barging into the mirror, although it happens pretty frequently, folks just leaping onto the stage and jumping in. Dr. Parnassus needs a bouncer.

Anyway, along comes Tony (Ledger), an amnesiac of uncertain origin who might be sketchy and who becomes the sideshow's barker, bringing in more paying customers than the show had been getting. Before long, Tony goes through the mirror himself, whereupon he is played, in his imagination, by Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, then Colin Farrell. (Going into an imaginary dimension changes your face, you see. And I'll be honest: In my imagination I look like those guys, too.)

Oh, and Parnassus owes the devil (Tom Waits) something, and has to accumulate five "souls" in two days. Something to do with Parnassus being immortal and being a storyteller in an age when no one wants stories anymore. If this is Gilliam expressing his own frustrations over the many setbacks he's had over the years -- and they have been numerous -- I would gently point out that people DO want stories, and that "Doctor Parnassus" doesn't have one. It has a sequence of loosely connected events that do not add up to anything.

The imagination sequences are gorgeously imaginative, however. Production designer Anastasia Masaro and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini deserve praise for bringing Gilliam's wild fantasies to life -- and indeed, this is what Gilliam has always been great at, going back to the surreal animations he did for "Monty Python's Flying Circus." But the film's a mess otherwise, with an incoherent story and no relatable characters, and I'm still left wondering whether anyone outside of Gilliam's brain will appreciate it.

Grade: D+

Rated PG-13, moderate profanity, one F-word, a little violence

2 hrs., 2 min.

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This item has 8 comments

  1. Chris A says:

    This may have happened before, but I haven't seen a case where you've reviewed an otherwise RT "fresh" film so poorly. Not that you have to agree with others. Frankly, in my experience this means that the rest of them are wrong. Did they want it to be good so bad for Ledger's sake that they overlooked film's faults? What do you think?

  2. Ken says:

    Despite your negative review, your description of it still made it seem pretty interesting. So I'll probably still see this, whether it makes any sense to me or not. Go figure.

  3. Tom says:

    Oh Dear Eric, I nearly always agree with you by at least 1 grade point in your reviews, but there's been a few where I largely disagree. It seems that this happens, when there's one or more key plot points that you didn't catch. I agree that this movie is quite subtle with it's connections, but I wouldn't say it's impossible. I've been more lost in James Bond films than in this one.

    So for anyone who might want to see this film, but is worried they might get totally lost here are some spoilers.

    It all ultimately revolves around the deal Dr Parnassus made with the devil. This involves him handing over his daughter at age 16 (which is why he's always lied to her about her age) so he could marry a non-eternal mortal. (I think that's right, it's been a little while - early euro release.) When it comes time to hand the girl over, the devil, a sporting man, makes another deal that the first one to capture 5 souls keeps the girl. Keep this in mind and you should be okay. And when people go into the mirror, they're entering Dr Parnassus' imagination (hence the title) so that's why things are wacky.

  4. donignacio says:

    I just got back from this one. I'm afraid you missed the mark, Snider. I found the narrative to be remarkably strong, but the story of course is hardly conventional. I even teared up a bit at the end.

  5. Ned White says:

    Eric, you must have a limited imagination. I just got back from experiencing this film, and I'm ready to see it again immediately. Stunning visuals only enhance the power of this study of truth and illusion. Terry Gilliam aims so high that even if he misses, it's still spectacular!

  6. Tatiana says:

    I like very much the sincerity of this review. Of course I totally agree with it, too. My favorite parts were the imagination scenes, which I thought there were too few of, and the bits where the other three actors first took over Heath Ledger's character. I didn't know who they were, or when they would appear, and it was kind of delicious to squint and wonder, wait, is that Johnny Depp? I actually can't tell for a minute. I'm not sorry I saw the movie, though; it's not a typical D+ in that way.

  7. Ben says:

    Couldn't stand this movie. Y'know why? That kid Anton. Not funny. In fact, why didn't he ever die going through the mirror. THAT should've been the first sequence. Would've raise this movie's review to an A++ rating.

  8. Dmitri says:

    Watched it with a machine translation, but looks like no essence could have been lost anyway. :) With no clear introduction I quickly understood it's not going to get clearer, that the script was half-baked and surrendered to being polite with my gf who downloaded it.

    The only funny moment was when Tony was chased by Russian mafia in the imagination land.

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