Over the holidays I read Robert Sellers’ Hellraisers, whose subtitle, “The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed” pretty much tells you what to expect. Making a guest appearance or two in various all-star pub crawls is Christopher Plummer, who lived to tell the tales of hedonism and hangover in his 2008 autobiography In Spite of Myself. But he’s hardly closed the book, and may need to add a chapter or two before he’s really finished. At age 80 he’s in the prime of his career, lending his voice to the animated Up and 9 and starring in two new films, The Last Station and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Plummer is a great stage actor. His King Lear, on Broadway in 2004, was a magnificent shambles. Barrymore (1997) was even better, and is among the great theatergoing experiences of my life. Playing John Barrymore at the tail end of his inebriated times, Plummer gave a dissipated, hilarious, and heroic performance, for which he won Tony and Drama Desk Awards. “My first wife Katherine and I,” I can still hear him booming, in that room-filling voice of his. “Katherine and I had 27 good years…and then we met!”
Big actors are a rare commodity these days—there aren’t too many younger, smaller-scaled (and smaller-skilled ones) who will ripen so fully over time—and Plummer is among the last of his kind. The movies haven’t always known what to do with him, and like his drinking buddies he squandered his talents on junk—for every noteworthy credit like The Man Who Would be King or The Silent Partner or The Insider on his resume there’s a corresponding Nosferatu in Venice or Dracula 2000, where all he has to do is look and act sinister. The paychecks from that ability were earned easily and often unwisely, and may have caused us to undervalue him. Neither The Last Station nor Terry Gilliam’s latest fantasy is great, but they draw on more of his resources. His talent and his material are at equilibrium.
The Last Station is typical middlebrow Oscar-hunting fare, and if it snags a nomination for Plummer I’m all for it—he has two Tonys and two Emmys but the Academy Awards have bypassed him. In these pinched times the era of the cradle-to-grave biopic, like Gandhi, is pretty much past, so we get the cradle or the grave. As the title implies, The Last Station is the end of the line for Leo Tolstoy, whose final days were marked by a squabble that pitted his wife of 50 years, Sofya, against his desire to divest himself of all his wealth, copyrights, and worldly possessions for the sake of the religion founded in his name. Sofya had a point: you may not have made it through War and Peace in high school, but she hand-copied the damn thing six times, and wanted her family (a whopping 13 children) provided for. The “Tolstoyans,” meanwhile, maneuvered to get their leader—at 81, a fresh convert to vegetarianism and celibacy—to sign a new will.
Jay Parini’s 1990 novel was at one point intended to star the burly Anthony Quinn. Adapter and director Michael Hoffman, whose career has hopscotched from the farce Soapdish to the historical drama Restoration and the rom-com One Fine Day, has cast two walking Wikipedias in the leads: Plummer (who has played Baron Von Trapp, Mike Wallace, Aristotle, Rudyard Kipling, the Duke of Wellington, and Rommel) and Helen Mirren (HRH Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, and Ayn Rand). And what a pair they make. The half-Russian Mirren tears into the role of Sofya, a devouring, difficult woman who will literally climb the walls to keep her adversaries away from her husband and his legacy. In a surprise, Plummer underplays Tolstoy. While Sofya throws the crockery around, the great man retreats to his bed and his chair, foxily orchestrating the spectacle of his impending demise until leaving his estate to find a measure of peace. You can’t blame him; having Mirren around would make anyone forget highfalutin talk of “ideal love” and test anyone’s chastity. “I’m still your little chicken, and you’re still my big cock,” she purrs. “Let me make you crow!”
I’m grateful to Hoffman for rescuing this exchange from the dustbin of history. Less satisfactory are the machinations of the Tolstoyan leader Cherthov (Paul Giamatti), who plants a spy, Valentin (James McAvoy), in the house, only to see his head turned by the scheming Sofya and one of the author’s more ardent adherents, Masha (Kerry Condon). All of this is decently acted and tolerable to watch and none of it is necessary. With the two leads at the top of their game and no chance of winning the Avatar crowd at the boxoffice The Last Station should have let them handle the tug-of-war between passion and piety and minimized the token audience identification figures. You want more of Plummer and Mirren and the epic history of these characters than you get, and what you get is unattractively photographed, as if the Tolstoyans got hold of the lighting budget and cut it. For them The Last Station is worth a look, though it terminates as a missed opportunity.
Think “Terry Gilliam,” and you think Monty Python, Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys. That leaves the last 15 years in limbo. Part of it is bad luck, with projects aborted and, with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, having to work around the death of co-star Heath Ledger. But some of it is self-inflicted. I found 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas virtually unwatchable, and I know others felt the same way about 2005’s Tideland—at least a third of the screening room audience I saw it with abandoned the theater, as if being evacuated from a disaster. An understandable martyrdom complex turned into hatred for any possible audience.
Imaginarium starts poorly. There’s that title, the most viewer-unfriendly since Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. (What a double feature they would make.) In the first scene, a philistine audience member heckling the doctor’s traveling show winds up blasted to smithereens, a worrisome act of bad faith not ten minutes in. Then there was the prospect of having to explain to you what was going on, a chore and a half. There’s a lot of plot, not that the film is strong on it, which leaves you betwixt and between trying to figure out something that Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown never seem to have settled themselves.
Suffice it to say that the eccentric doctor (Plummer) is an immortal, a former monk whose magical mirror is the centerpiece of his ragtag traveling show. Finding customers to peek into the mirror and experience alternate realities requires a lot of busking, and there’s no guarantee that the Devil (raffishly played by Tom Waits) won’t make off with your soul. Part of the Devil’s pact with Parnassus is the hand of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), when she turns 16, a date that’s fast approaching. To break the agreement Parnassus, a thousand years old and a little shaky on his feet, has to find five souls who will put their faith in his magic. Tony (Ledger), a mysterious emissary first seen hanging from a bridge, assists in the collection. When Ledger died Gilliam replaced him with three of his friends, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, who play Tony in the scenes set in the shifting world of the mirror—a nice bit of sleight-of-hand that can’t quite mask Ledger’s disappearance from the picture, leaving it spookily incomplete.
The film has a cobbled-together feel. It looks great—the Asian-inspired dreamworlds, with smidgens of Grant Wood and Maxfield Parrish, are a rich blend of sets and digital environments, Gilliam in his element. Getting to them, however, is a bumpy ride, as the screenplay jerks from one tangent to the next, made a little easier by the cast. Cole is enchanting, and Verne Troyer (Mini-Me!) is a sideshow all his own as Parnassus’ loyal, if skeptical, assistant.
Twelve Monkeys co-star Plummer is basically playing Gilliam, the seer who wants to make others believe in make-believe. He’s completely unsentimental about it, though. The actor played a bum named Shitty in John Boorman’s offbeat comedy Where the Heart Is (1989), and Parnassus is just as rank, a believer whose faith is noisily shaken. Plummer is more outward than as Tolstoy, and the force of his personality holds the shards of the movie together. He and Waits, an unlikely pair, harmonize like two sad clowns from a Beckett production. When the film is observing Parnassus in his agonies, worrying over Valentina’s fate, it has all the magic it needs, courtesy of its star.