I tried desperately if not optimistically to sit through Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which by-the-way is a terrible title. Bad titles in movies are akin to a suicide pact where no one knows until it’s too late and the cool-aid is gone that it was a bad idea. It hasn’t been that long since The Shawshank Redemption, which is a personal favorite and was critically acclaimed, fell to the box office way side because audiences couldn’t figure out what a Shawshank was. It’s true. Silly titles lead audiences away from the theaters, not to them. In this case, the hefty $30 million dollar budget, the death of Ledger and the muddy script only added to the confusion at the box office. No title in the world could change all that. I know what you’re thinking, it made over $60 million dollars worldwide, isn’t that a modicum of success? Sure, it made a profit and for Hollywood that’s a big sigh of relief because, well, who wants to lose money? But you might easily credit any number of bit-part appearances by the likes Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, or Jude Law as to the demise of Ledger during production for such modest accomplishments. Gilliam’s self-styled brilliance is overshadowed by a mixed bag, the endless debacle of Don Quixote, the nearly two decades since Fisher King and 12-Monkeys shined. Sadly, he has been backpedaling, half-stumbling ever since.
I convinced myself with bejeweled recollections of Gilliam’s previous films that he would deliver, if for no other reason than youthful hopefulness, but alas, no. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Heath Ledger killed himself, no honestly; you know how people salivate over the carnival of death and deprivation so highly prized on television and cable these days. If I see one more cooking show contest with eager beavers running amok with razor-sharp knives and five minutes to kill, bone, filet and cook a turkey I’m going to scream bloody murder. O.K. Breathe in, breathe out. On a positive note, I actually found the inventive solution of the aforementioned actors playing various parts of Ledgers character one of the standout elements of the production. And who didn’t love Tom Waits as Mr. Nick? I think what displeases the most and therefore discredits all else is the unidentifiable spastic quality that surfaces in Imaginarium; at once curious but placid, familiar and new, the story of a traveling theater group that gives their audience more than they expected ultimately brings the film to its proverbial knees. If one needs convincing he/she need only look to the director himself, befuddled at his own playfulness and perhaps short mindedness when he claimed Parnassus is, “his most mature and immature film” to date. Sadly the film relishes too long in the muddy mire of what once made Gilliam an auteur of measure – an impractical work ethic allowing the muse to meander as production costs amass and actors die and audiences find it increasingly difficult to separate the man from his monsters.