TIFF Review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009, directed by Terry Gilliam)

Gilliam films of recent vintage (all two of them... it's still hard to believe he's only managed to complete three projects in the decade following Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) have a spotty pedigree at best. The Brothers Grimm is tired studio hackery, and Tideland is almost universally reviled as unwatchable (even though I may go to my grave arguing that it's probably the greatest film he's ever made.) Add to that all the projects that failed to make it across the finish line, and it's easy to have doubts about what Gilliam has left in the tank as a film maker.

Doubts = assuaged. No, more. Doubts = buried, very very deeply.

Gilliam's back, baby.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus might be the perfect summation of Gilliam's own completely individual ouevre, the film his career has been angling towards all along. In fact it's almost too perfect a summation. It'd be easy to dismiss it as a Gilliam greatest hits package: the wonder of Baron Munchausen mixed with the fantasy/reality juxtaposition of the Fisher King and the dark heft of Brazil, with a little person from Time Bandits and a leftover Monty Python sketch for garnish. But there's more than enough originality and genius here for it to be something greater than just a nostalgia trip.

For one thing, I don't believe Gilliam has ever made a film this autobiographical before. It's hard not to see Dr. Parnassus (played so ably by Christopher Plummer, looking like Dumbledore's broken, beaten-down brother) as a stand-in for Gilliam himself, a storyteller dressed in rags tossing gems to an audience of philistines, drunks and video game-obsessed children (when, that is, he gets around to finishing a story at all...) It's all clearly more than a little personal for Gilliam, and his investment in the story shines through in every frame.

For another, Gilliam has a ton of help. The focus is obviously going to be on Heath Ledger's performance and he's great as the charismatic, treacherous Tony, but he's not the only person rising to the occasion. Plummer is utterly fantastic. The three Ledger amigos who stepped in after his death (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, in order of appearance) all bring different and interesting things to the table, although Law once again struggles to prove he can hang with the big boys when it comes to acting chops. Tom Waits is flat out fucking awesome as Mr. Nick. Boy A's Andrew Garfield is brilliant as the kid with the cool name. And hell, even Verne Troyer is more than just a prop.

And then there's Lily Cole.

Sweet Jesus.

Every once in a while the slow chaos of the universe resolves itself in such a way that little human brains think they can see patterns in it (this is what is known as the Aneristic Illusion). Often these phenomenon translate into religions, and religious experiences, since the patterns otherwise defy explanation.

Lily Cole's existence is one of those patterns. Lily Cole doesn't just make me believe in God; Lily Cole convinces me that God is benevolent and that God loves me, because otherwise God would not have put a woman as incredible and perfect and sweet and sexy and awesome as Lily Cole on the same planet as me.

There are times in the film where her sheer stunning presence is almost distracting, in a way I haven't seen since a young Angelina Jolie burned through the screen in Foxfire. She's the best special effect Gilliam has in his arsenal. All the other crazy, enchanting visuals are just parlor tricks. Cole is the real deal, Magick of the ancient sort, and it makes perfect sense that she would be the ultimate prize in a battle between two potential lovers, or between her father and Satan himself.

Right at this very moment, somewhere in New York or London or wherever, she's the most beautiful woman in the world.

As a film, the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a triumph, one of the miraculous high points of Gilliam's accursed, roller-coaster career. As Ledger's final performance, it's a send-off more than worthy of his talents. But as a Lily Cole delivery mechanism, it's a gift from heaven.

Thank you, Terry. For everything.

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