8) The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Dir: Terry Gilliam Date Released: December 2009 Date Seen: January 9, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5
There's something about Terry Gilliam's signature sour humor, strong-arm didacticism and distortion of classical, fable-like storytelling that completely disarms me. Admittedly, in his older age, his films have only grown more scruffy but there's always a spark of unctuous energy that draws me in to a point. Despite being a minor work on a giant scale, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is Gilliam's most enjoyable film since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and while it lacks that more visionary film's teeth, it has a pomp and a luster that makes it comfortably staid material from Gilliam. As a master cartoonist, now even more disgruntled and feverish after years of being on the outs with American studios and fans, his vision of the terrors of bourgeois centers of distraction--bars and super-markets--are especially effective. Here he drives home his point about the necessity of a gypsy lifestyle forcefully but rather well, using gently swaying digital camcorders and lots of low-angle shots to show you how foreign and disorienting his world, in this case the dilapidated, traveling sideshow of Dr. Parnasuss (Christopher Plummer), looks when everything is so woefully grounded in materialism and distraction (Spike Jonze owes much of his aesthetic to Gilliam).
And once you step behind the mirror into the film's world of pure CGI imagination, you get a sense of the fittingly terrifying limitless freedom that comes with that technology. By now, Gilliam knows that the promise of CGI is problematic, or in his lexicon, a deadly Siren's call. It comes with a catch, one that overtly resembles the easy out the Devil (Tom Waits, stealing every damn scene) provides his victims, a quick fix that Parnassus, Gilliam's avatar, wearily challenges. By making it so easy to for these characters to visualize their dreams, Gilliam cannily makes their world gaudy and more than a little slight. The sense of wonder of these dull housewives and brain-dead gangsters ,whose egos we probe in not-so great detail behind Parnassus's curtain, are all withered-up trifles that only become memorably lurid when Mr. Nick shows up and threatens to take their imaginations and their souls away. That threat of change has always lit a fire under Gilliam's ass and while here it's a little boring to see him chastise his audience, it props the film up enough to keep his meta-story alive and kicking.