I agree mostly with Nick Mamatas’ review of Doctor Parnassus but I’d like to do some of my own raking-over-the-coals because I just wasted a buy one, get one free pass to see it. Actually, scratch that– I didn’t waste a buy one, get one free pass, because this way, Terry Gilliam, who I was already loath to fund out-of-pocket because he signed the Free Roman Polanski petition of ’09, got less of my money.
Well, whatevs. The whole thing is essentially a carnival redux of Lady in the Water, in that Lady in the Water was a pointless, onanistic allegory about how misunderstood– nay, how veritably Christ-like– M. Night Shyamalan is for making movies as brilliant as Signs and, uh, The Village. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is basically the same movie even down to its hilarious racist stereotypes, except that it was vastly more boring, and also it casts Christopher Plummer as Terry Gilliam instead of Gilliam playing himself, which I suppose is a level of allegory-hiding I should appreciate since such, ah, nuance wasn’t deemed acceptable by Shyamalan.
The movie as a whole was bloated beyond excusability, coming in at 122 minutes according to the IMDB, and saying the film had 90 minutes of adequate material would be a stretch. There was not a single scene that couldn’t stand trimming, most notably anything involving CGI, because damn, even such films as Dragon Wars: D-War and Van Helsing looked better, if memory serves. There is a scene featuring a CGI Tom Waits as a sort of naga-ish thing that looked barely passable enough to be a villain in Charmed, and there is a scene featuring a CGI Christopher Plummer that would’ve been better-looking if they had gotten the animators from Monty Python to just draw the damn thing and just stuck it in there without rendering it. Jesus.
Moving from general problems to more specific ones: well, since I already mentioned the fact that Gilliam signed the Roman Polanski petition, let’s just say I was reminded unhappily of last summer’s traumatizing news cycle when shortly into the film the young-looking heroine proclaims loudly that she’s “16: THE AGE OF CONSENT” (direct quote). Awesome! Actually, best part is that as far as I could tell she was actually turning 16: THE AGE OF CONSENT, which would make her only 15, slightly under THE AGE OF CONSENT for most of the film, but that doesn’t stop Heath Ledger and Andrew Garfield leering over her.
So, that. And also: midget jokes, jokes about “politically correct” terminology for midgets, racist stereotypes of Russians, a midget in blackface, sexist stereotypes of women (what do women want? SHOES; also, to be home-makers), midgets cracking wise, a white dude playing an “Eastern” (?) sage, midgets making midget jokes, the age-old hilarity that is a man in a woman’s dress (a fat woman, no less!) and some incredibly subtle political commentary when a bunch of police officers roll up in miniskirts, fishnets, and high heels singing and dancing about how the racist Russian stereotypes should “join the police, [they] love violence.” Good fucking times.
On top of that, there’s an even weirder moment when the just-deflowered-by-Colin-Farrell-on-her-16th-birthday heroine proclaims angstily that “it’s a child, not a choice!” when looking at some sort of orphan. WTF? Was that a joke, or is Terry Gilliam sincerely a member of the pro-life movement? Neither option is particularly appealing, frankly.
What this all boils down to is that the film falls epically flat for a number of reasons. One, Gilliam spectacularly failed to make me care about any of the characters, thus why would I be invested in the deal-with-the-devil, the sacrifice of the shrill daughter, the romantic outcome? Two, the entire allegory of “a lovely man with such wonderful visions is tragically ignored by the masses because they just don’t appreciate what he has to offer” made my teeth hurt because Gilliam deserves pretty much every single piece of negative criticism he’s received regarding this film and much of everything else he’s done (my intelligence is still kind of hurt after the insults Gilliam hurled at it during The Brothers Grimm). And, given his uneven track record, he also kind of deserves to have studio executives be wary of giving him millions of dollars to make movies like, oh, say, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS because he has shown himself to be completely willing to blow fat wads of cash doing things like hiring Robin Williams to ruin The Adventures of Baron Munchasusen which was otherwise a perfectly lovely little confection of a film as far as I recall.
I really think Gilliam needs to wake up to the fact that racist stereotypes aren’t as amusing as I imagine they were felt to be during the Monty Python years, along with but not exclusively: shrill portrayals of women, cross dressing, slapstick, Robin Williams, people with lisps, people with limps.
I also think Gilliam needs to wake up to the fact that he is completely brilliant when it comes to set design, to spectacular visuals, baroque costumes and sight gags and lavish whimsical concoctions of sparkling, ethereal beauty. Doctor Parnassus had these, but it also had no plot, wooden characters, and a host of other problems. It hurt, because I was rooting for him. I wanted to like it, and I want Gilliam to do better than this because I know he can.