STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE: Reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The Lovely Bones


Two films by incredible visual stylists have opened or are about to open. But though lately the prevailing wisdom is that in film visual is more important than anything else, both movies prove in many ways that being a visual stylist alone is not enough to create a satisfying work of art.

It would be almost impossible not to say that Terry Gilliam has a remarkable eye. His movies look incredible. He is an amazing visual stylist, but I have to be honest and shame the devil (played by Tom Waits in Gilliam’s latest project The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, with the name of Mr. Nick, no lack of imagination there, is there) and say I’m not quite convinced he can tell a story as well as he needs to. In fact, again to be honest, I’m not even sure what the story was in this film; I was thoroughly confused from beginning to end and found myself spending most of my time just trying to figure out the plot created by screenwriters Charles McKeown and Mr. Gilliam himself. Christopher Plummer (next to the production design the main reason to see this film) plays some sort of wizard type person (Dr. Parnassus) who made some sort of deal with the devil (the aforesaid Waits) that gave him, Parnassus eternal life. Parnassus now travels in a wagon that doubles as a theater with a couple of assistants and his daughter, who though she doesn’t know it, may have to marry Mr. Nick if Paranassus doesn’t win some sort of bet that’s never clearly defined. Enter Heath Ledger for some reason, who somehow complicates that situation and who somehow resolves it. The theater piece that Parnassus produces (which for some unbelievable reason is ignored by people passing by) has a mirror as part of the set and if someone enters it, they enter the imaginarium which shows the person something about their life, though what that is isn’t always too clear. Ledger’s character comes along and revamps the piece and suddenly it’s a hit (though it’s unclear why since the show isn’t that significantly different). The best scenes are those that take place on the other side of the mirror. Though the psychology may be shallow (a drunk falls into a pit of empty bottles and enters a bar that blows up; shopping women enter a world of oversize shoes and hats), the art direction takes your breath away. Ledger died during the making of the film and three actors (Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp) take his place whenever his character enters the mirror. This could have made sense, but it never does. Just like the movie as a whole.

The Lovely Bones is also big on visuals, while being bigger on story telling which makes it the more satisfactory movie of the two. It’s narrated, like Sunset Boulevard, by someone who is dead, here a 13 year old girl, Susie, played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan. The story is then told in two plot lines, one concerning Susie and her adventures in a land of limbo, a breathtakingly exciting place of dazzling invention where everything changes second from second. It’s an Alice in Wonderland location filled with beautiful non sequitors and with more depth of psychology than the mirror world of Parnassus’s. The second plot revolves around Susie’s family and how they respond to the daughter’s death. This is also interesting, though not as interesting as the land of limbo. But as intriguing as the whole movie is, it doesn’t quite work since the two story lines never really come together. Occasionally Susie somehow connects with the real world, but not in any significant way. The screenplay, by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson, who also directed, suggests that Susie has a character arc, that something happens that enables her to leave limbo and go on to what’s next, but it’s unclear what that something that happens could be. Susan Sarandon is a lot of fun as that staple of sit coms and 1970’s movies, the boozy, pill popping upper middle class pre-post-feminist woman who never learned how to wash clothes. Stanley Tucci is the rapist/murderer and he has his moments, but he does something with his voice that got on my nerves. In the end, it’s Ronan who holds the picture together.

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