Film Review: Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam masturbates onto a sea of shit ideas and earns our first no star review. Bravo!

Heath Ledger Lily Cole Shit Sweet Shop Terry Gilliam Tom Waits


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Dir: Terry Gilliam, Running Time: 122 minutes too long.

No Stars

Three quarters of the way through this film I had a powerful, pulsating urge to leave the theatre. But something stuck me to my seat. Derren Brown? He wasn’t there. Professional pride? I’m unpaid. No, it was the intuition that the completion of a pointless, painful and tedious activity would provide a grotesque satisfaction. For the first time ever I could empathise with people who fill their futile lives with marathons, or attempts on Everest, or rowing. And you know, I was right. It felt good. Say it loud: I survived Parnassus.

The first thing people know about this film is that Heath Ledger died mid-production. The second is that his scenes were completed by not one but three stars: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. These two pieces of information are enough to set alarm bells ringing.

Think of your favourite film. Imagine the lead actor had died during its filming. It would have been an unmitigated catastrophe, wouldn’t it? Your favourite film could never have been properly realised. It would have been scrapped, or, at best, completely reshot with a new lead.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not like your favourite film. It is the type of film where the death of the lead actor is not considered an disaster but, actually, something of an artistic opportunity. Try to imagine what type of film it must therefore be. That’s correct: a shit film. More accurately: a shit, shit, shitting mess of a film. ABSOLUTELY, DIABOLICALLY SHIT.

The idiot producers must have thought that director Terry Gilliam’s wild imagination is enough to make a feature. Well, listen to this: Our protagonist sits on a bench. “This is not the path of the prophecy,” the bench informs him.” But not before the bench explodes, killing the protagonist.

No, that isn’t a scene from the film. I just made it up. Wow, what wild imagination! (And a three-act structure to boot.) I can only expect that a contract attaching me to a Hollywood picture as writer-director is in the post. But it’s not. That’s because the idea that possessing a wild imagination is sufficient qualification to make films is preposterous. It’s not even a desirable qualification. Small children have wild imaginations. They are not, as a rule, given the creative helm of feature length films, with good reason. Terry Gilliam is the exception which proves the rule.

I’ve already described the plot. It’s a shit, shit, shitting mess. I’ll try to elaborate. Terry Gilliam walks into a sweet shop and there are no responsible adults there to restrain him. So he just keeps gorging himself. He wants a charity founder (Ledger et al.) guilty of harvesting the organs of orphans, the immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his machine which realises characters’ imaginations, and the Devil, and more, and more. Would he like coherence with that? Or perhaps some narrative drive? Or would sir like a little character development? No, he wouldn’t.

Indeed, all the characters are paper thin and devoid of interest. Take the antagonist (Tom Waits). He’s evil because he’s the devil and he’s the devil because he’s evil. He expresses his evil nature by placing protracted and unfathomable wagers with a hapless monk, the eponymous Parnassus.

It can be difficult to evaluate a work like this because there are so few reference points with which to consider its flights of fancy. Thankfully, there are two aspects of the film which definitively confirm that no misunderstood creative genius abounds. These are the second-hand dialogue and the third-rate attempts at humour. An example: Parnassus is exhibiting his Imaginarium in a shopping area trod by the well-heeled. For no reason other than an absolutely pathetic gag, his dwarf assistant (Verne Troyer) has blacked up. A ludicrous upper crust woman spots him. And, oh, here we go, she asks to adopt him! I don’t think this requires additional critique; the description suffices.

A great film career is as much about the parts you refuse as those you accept. The cast don’t acquit themselves badly but they each made the unforgiveable decision of agreeing to appear in this abomination. Once they had, there was nothing any of them could do to salvage it. Ledger’s performance is average, and he’s dead. That’s all there is to say.

Surprisingly, Lily Cole is the best thing in the film. Indeed, her emergence is its only positive. I don’t say that in the vain hope she will read this and ask to be my 17th Facebook friend. If I’m honest, I suspect that ship may have sailed when I described her first major picture as absolutely, diabolically shit, in block capitals. Truthfully, Cole is mesmerising. She has magnificent screen presence. She can’t act. And yet, that doesn’t much matter. The former attributes are far rarer and far more covetable.

Cole took on a difficult task, to play fifteen (she’s twenty-one), armed only with a godawful script. She successfully plays an average age of fifteen. Sadly, her performance veers everywhere between about eight and twenty-two. A kinder critic would argue this constitutes a brilliant performance, because isn’t being fifteen all about being caught between eight and twenty-two? I’d argue she can’t act.

In summary: a shit, shit, shitting mess of a film. Terry Gilliam walks into a sweet shop. It sounds like the start of a joke. It is. And its punch bag is cinema audiences.