A mad scientist makes a Faustian pact and a hapless everyman tries to get by as best he can: Terry Gilliam and the Coen brothers tackle the human con dition.
Terry Gilliam is the mad scientist of cinema. And like every mad scientist holed up in his laboratory (in this case, it’s called The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), experimenting away, he has little regard for the outside world or the people in it. Gilliam knows how to invent a world that is wild and daring and beautiful, but he has never learned to create characters that keep pace with it. Worse, Dr. Parnassus, the old man who operates an old-fashioned mobile theater with a magical gimmick that it lets audience members enter a world in which their character traits and fantasies are mirrored and enhanced, is actually a kind of whiner.
The Doctor (a thinly-veiled stand-in for Gilliam) complains endlessly that no one wants to listen to his stories anymore. Well, boo hoo. Tell one that’s interesting. Give us characters that are sympathetic enough for us to care about. Stop crying that your audience is forsaking you - go after a new one. But Dr. Parnassus (Plummer) doesn’t want to do that. Instead, he makes a deal with the devil over which one of them can win more souls. Of course, making a deal with the devil is just a different way of saying you’re a genius, but if something goes wrong, it’s not your fault. And a lot of things do indeed go wrong, as Parnassus and his crew - his daughter Valentina, and his assistants Percy and Anton (the latter of which is hopelessly in love with Valentina) - pick up a stranger who revolutionizes their show, yet also puts them all in grave danger.
The film’s focus quickly changes from the old man to that mysterious stranger, famously played by Heath Ledger in his last role. As part of Gilliam’s notoriously bad luck, Ledger died before finishing his work, so Depp, Law and Farrell take over his role at various stages, which give it a multidimensionality that Ledger, even though he’s clearly having fun with his role, can’t quite manage on his own. And while the story spirals hopelessly out of control, dissolving into a maelstrom of colors, it’s entertaining enough to keep you interested.
Entertainment is clearly not the main aim of the Coen Bros’ new film, A Serious Man. They freely admit that they took the protagonist - hapless, henpecked Larry Gropnik (Stuhlbarg) - and proceeded to throw at him as many bits of bad luck as they could think of. But it turns out to be more than just an intellectual exercise, more than just a statement to the effect that however bad you think your life is, it can always get worse. Larry, like all human beings, is constantly in the process of having to make decisions that seem to be about life and death or are at least potentially life-changing, but when he’s made them, everything pretty much goes on as before.
A Serious Man, which is set in the same kind of 1967 midwestern suburb where the Coens grew up, jumps into the story with a short scene set in a wintry shtetl. This revolves around another question: is the stranger standing on your doorstep, whom you’re about to ask inside, going to save or kill you? Like the crew of Dr. Parnassus’s imaginarium, and like Dorothy in Oz, the shtetl couple and Gropnik must judge whether other people are good or bad. “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” And if it’s a bad witch, would it even give an honest answer? There’s no way out of this conundrum and Gropnik, GOOD AND BAD as much as he tries to ask various authorities for advice and guidance (his encounter with the senior rabbi is weirdly reminiscent of Miles Massey’s visit to the inner sanctum of his law firm in Intolerable Cruelty), is always being thrown back on himself – he is constantly having to renegotiate his place in the world. And judging by the old-fashioned, 1950s idioms he uses, he’s permanently disconnected from it. Larry even has problems understanding the youth slang his kids speak, and the Korean accent of a student who tries to blackmail him into giving him a better grade. While Gropnik’s trying in all earnestness to be a good man, he can never quite grasp the parameters by which goodness should be judged. A Serious Man is culturally specific and philosophically general in equal parts; in their latest effort, the Coens present nothing less than a portrait of modern man - and it’s amazing that this portrait came out so loving.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS (UK, Canada, France 2009) Directed by Terry Gilliam, with Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits. Starts January 7. Rating: 1/4
A SERIOUS MAN (USA, UK, France 2009) Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, with Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed. English with some Yiddish and Hebrew OV. Starts January 21. Rating: 4/4