THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 18, 12:00 midnight
Longtime Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam is perhaps the most frustrating filmmaker of the last thirty years. A remarkable talent whose works are often mired in controversy, from going way overbudget to having to deal with severe illness and even death on his sets, Gilliam has made such pure gems as Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Fisher King (1991) as well as such disasters as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), The Brothers Grimm (2005), and Tideland (2005). His last real success was Twelve Monkeys (1995), making it nearly fifteen years since he’s made a worthwhile movie. His 2009 adult fairy tale, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is reminiscent of his 1988 film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a somewhat underrated though hit-or-miss effort that reached lofty heights while flirting with utter ridiculousness. Cowritten by Gilliam and Charles McKeown (who also collaborated on Brazil and Munchausen), Parnassus is built around a Faustian plot in which a monk, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who thinks his sect controls the story of the world, makes a deal with Mr. Nick, the devil (Tom Waits), involving Parnassus’s daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Valentina is part of the doctor’s traveling sideshow, along with the trusted, all-knowing Percy (Verne Troyer) and assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), who is in love with Valentina but is unable to express his desire. The ramshackle show offers people the chance to walk through a mirror into their own private fantasy — during which they will eventually face a decision regarding their own potential deal with the devil. When the oddball troupe discovers a man hanging by his neck under a bridge, they welcome the charming, handsome, deeply mysterious stranger (Heath Ledger) into their outfit, but he is hiding a secret that could tear everything apart. Parnassus is an up-and-down affair in which a captivating, beautiful scene will be followed by a baffling segment that borders on the incompetent, as if the filmmakers forgot to edit it properly or couldn’t afford more takes to improve it. Fortunately, the last half hour is thrilling, especially how Gilliam and McKeown rework the script to deal with Ledger’s death when several key scenes still needed to be shot. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is screening in a DCP projection at midnight on May 17 & 18 as part of the IFC Center Waverly Midnights series “Terry Gilliam,” which continues through July 20 with such other fine Gilliam fare as Time Bandits, Jabberwocky, and Brazil.