Sherlock Holmes vs. Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

by Anne Thompson
December 30, 2009 12:57 AM
9 Comments
  • |

Thompson on Hollywood
One is slick, the other isn't.

Both period evocations are set in London with largely British casts, complete with horse-drawn carriages, belching smoke, high collars and waistcoats.

One's the authentic vision of a mad artist shooting on a relative shoestring ($30 million) with his heart on his sleeve. The other is a cannily commercial $90-million product launch selling a global name brand. Both opened well this holiday weekend, although one is a studio blockbuster (opening to $65 million) and the other led the new indie field.

Watching Terry Gilliam's brilliant The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I was swept away to another world, a swirling place of magic and enchantment, where anything can happen--Heath Ledger can turn into Johnny Depp or Jude Law or Colin Firtharrell, for example. I smiled with pleasure at the duel between two wily antagonists for the ages, the Devil (Tom Waits) and Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). I worried for the fate of Parnassus's daughter (Lily Cole) and her young swain (Andrew Garfield). I loved their bits of theatrical business on their traveling theater on wheels and the beyond-the-mirror dreamscape that allowed Gilliam free visual rein. (Set in an indeterminate contemporary London, the film's feet are planted firmly in a period landscape of the imagination.) And diminutive Verne Troyer reminded me of my early Gilliam favorite, Time Bandits. Look, I'm an avowed Gilliam-phile, no matter how messy and meandering he gets: I even enjoyed his last film with Ledger, The Brothers Grimm.

And Sherlock Holmes , from Joel Silver and Guy Ritchie, was better than I expected, for which I credit Warners production exec-turned-producer Lionel Wigram (who devised the original story and comic book inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) along with Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife Susan, who also produced. Movies like this are huge, expensive logistical projects under heavy studio supervision. This picture is gorgeous: it boasts top-of-the-line cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jenny Beavan, composer Hans Zimmer and many splendid digital tableaus. The movie expertly blends the satisfying bromance of decadent Holmes (Downey) and straight-arrow Watson (Jude Law), who wants to break away to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), with a lackluster plot driven by a garden-variety power-mad megalomaniac (Mark Strong), with complications from Holmes love interest, criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). She gets somewhat short shrift: you can see the wheels grinding as the movie balances character bits to appeal to one audience segment against action set pieces for the other.

(At the Movies reviews Holmes and Parnassus.)

Which one of these less-than-perfect films do I like best? You know the answer. I vote for the scrappy original indie.

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9 Comments

  • Bob | December 30, 2009 11:30 AMReply

    Haven't seen "Holmes" yet but for me "Parnussus" was a split decision. Almost unbearably unfocused in the first half but it eventually kind of resolves it into something that works in the way the best surrealist films do, even if the story borders on unfathomable.

  • Anthony E | December 30, 2009 10:46 AMReply

    Have to agree with SERGIO. I was so pumped to see this. Gilliam working with Ledger again, all for it... It just seemed too many factors got in the way. Having this film and having to complete it under the circumstances. It was all over the place. I wanted to enjoy it, I wanted to delve through the mirror beyond the glass, but it broke. Jagged pieces is what you get. Gilliam and his co-writter from BRAZIL and Munchausin, both of which are my Favorites of Gilliams. Just sad, but the bright news is Ledger is the best part of it, he was amazing, second Depp, and Mini-me was third, reteaming with Gilliam after a smart part in Fear and Loathing as a circus midget who disappears.

  • Anne Thompson | December 30, 2009 8:35 AMReply

    I have no issue with Downey's portrayal of a younger, more physical Holmes. It works.

    I'll take idiosyncratic, crazy brilliance over canny studio commercialism. Both films fall down in the narrative department. Finally, Gilliam's film is more artful and surprising.

    ManWithSword: I was also disturbed by the Farrell-daughter dreamscape: did he take her innocence inside her father's mind, on some level?

  • Annie Mouse | December 30, 2009 6:40 AMReply

    Looking forward to this! Gilliam always surprises, that's for sure. Agree with you that a Gilliam mess is endlessly more fascinating than many other directors' messes. He can do anything he wants after "Brazil", in my opinion.

    We need those "dreamer" filmmakers to continue to do their thing and be supported in the film communtiy, even if it makes some audiences uncomfortable. So you should be thanked for helping support creative indie filmmaking, not blasted for it! (Actually, I don't understand why anyone would mention Guy Ritchie and Terry Gilliam in the same sentence, seriously).

  • ManWithSword | December 30, 2009 4:23 AMReply

    Haven't seen Holmes yet, but I have to agree that Parnassus was brilliant in places, disappointing in others, and ever so slightly creeepy in its sexualizing of such a young looking woman. Overall, the film was good, but not amazing. Crucially, where the film should have been mind blowing, but wasn't, were the worlds inside Parnassus' imagination. And at the same time, the grittiness of the 'real' world should have been ten times grittier. This Wizard of Oz contrast between harsh reality and colourful fantasy that is used to defeat the wrongs that make reality so harsh, is what the film was aiming for, but perhaps needed to ratchet everything up to 11.

  • Sergio | December 30, 2009 3:32 AMReply

    WOW Anne What can I say? I was extremely disappointed with the Gilliam film. I was all set for it but I found it a confusing, muddled mess. Granted it's not as bad as Tideland (what is?) but it's not one of Gilliam's better efforts by a long shot.

    Holmes however I really enjoyed (and I've seen it twice already). A really entertaining film which proves that Downey is the vertsitile actor working today. And it's the first Guy Richie film I've seen that I like. No doubt those who are critizing the film are doing so because Richie's name is attached. If it was Jonathan Demme instead all those naysayers would be praising it. And as for 'destroying" the Holmes character what a load of crap. Holmes as been interpreted in so many different ways, from the coke addled nutcase in Herbert Ross' The Seven Per Cent Solution (which has a farfetched action climax not dissimilar to the Richie film, but I have heard anyone complaing about that) or the introverted, psychologically damaged Holmes in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. So Downey's version is just as valid. And if anyone has read the Doyle stories they'll discover that his Holmes was quite the action hero, not that far removed from Richie's Holmes. So what are these cry babys screamng about? And what a great soundtrack the film has too!

  • grueman1 | December 30, 2009 3:29 AMReply

    You obviously have no credibility as a writer or a reviewer. You don't even list the correct names of the actors in the film. COLIN FIRTH was NOT in the film. Try COLIN FARRELL. On top of that, you just sound like some journalistic snob with the way the review was written. I hope you don't get review any more films, because I have doubts as to whether you even saw Parnassus or Holmes. You probably just searched wikipedia for summaries of the films plot lines and gave a win to Parnassus based on the fact you are sympathetic to the passing of Heath Ledger. Don't get me wrong, I mourn the loss of Heath just as much as anyone, but Parnassus was not a "great" film. It was just okay.

  • Ann | December 30, 2009 3:29 AMReply

    I've read Conan Doyle and I never saw Holmes as the 'action' hero. Read what Doyle himself says about his character and you might understand why some don't see this sort of adaptation as anything to do with the original. Just because many others have also suited Holmes to their purpose doesn't make this one any more valid. I think Doyle might have enjoyed Grissom in CSI far more than Downey in these Adventures. That said, I agree, Anne - it was entertaining - but not Holmes for me.

    I also found Imaginarium a little disappointing, just because my hopes were very high for Ledger's last film, but I will take 'messy' Gilliam whenever he chooses. I too am a phile as I think he is one of the truly original filmmakers and whatever else he does I will always be grateful for "Brazil." He can create another world where the unexpected can happen, and frequently does, and after the slew of predictable plots and storylines I've viewed lately, that is a blessing.

  • alan green | December 30, 2009 1:49 AMReply

    i thought gilliam was knows for knotted throughlines and fragmented plot. i was under the impression that was a given with his movies.

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