I had high hopes that Terry Gilliam’s latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), would be a stirring, brilliant return-to-form. Alas, it is merely a good, fun, crazy romp. But it also, quite satisfyingly, feels like the purest Gilliam vision in a long time, perhaps going back to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — so in that sense, anyway, it is a return-to-form of sorts.
The eponymous Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a despondently immortal storyteller with the power to project people into his wildly imaginative headspace, is traveling England with his old-style stage show. The modern era hasn’t been kind to his weird, magical business, and the troupe — which also consists of Percy (Vern Troyer), Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the doctor’s daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) — is struggling mightily. Then one night they rescue Tony (Heath Ledger), whom they find dangling from his neck under a bridge. Improbably they resurrect him, and Tony is admitted into the group, where he quickly becomes a source of conflict and change. But to Dr. Parnassus he may be the key to winning a second, ill-considered wager with the Devil (the brilliantly cast Tom Waits). The persuasive Tony has a way with luring modern citizens into the imaginarium, where — by passing through the mirror on their traveling stage — they envision their wildest dreamscapes. There, they can choose a path of good or a path of evil. In order to erase a previous debt with the Devil, Parnassus has gambled that he can win five good souls before the Devil can win five bad ones. Who will win the bet?
The film has everything one’s come to expect from Terry Gilliam. There’s the ever-present clash of wills between imagination and grim reality; a scattered, chaotic messiness; an elderly story-teller and a feisty damsel-in-distress; crazy cock-eyed camera angles; hapless heroes and dastardly villains; and sheer, unrestrained visual creativity. Do all these elements come together structurally? Not entirely. Underneath the visual feast of it all is a coherent plot, but Gilliam’s lack of restraint sometimes buries the story in its eyeball kicks. The film is always interesting to look at, but takes a little work to follow. Many sequences reminded me of the brilliant Gilliam of old, while others felt like the hollow, effects-driven spectacles of modern cinema. From time-to-time, the film even conjures memories of his stream-of-conscious Monty Python animations.
One drawback on the story front is the lack of a relatable protagonist. Ledger is flashy but weirdly unreadable in the crucial role; Dr. Parnassus, well played by Plummer, isn’t a terribly sympathetic fellow; and Vern Troyer, well, isn’t much of an actor. (Stunt-casting FTL.) Cole and Garfield are quite good and bring the most heroic presence, but their story feels like a sideshow to the main event. Ledger’s death during production forced some creative re-envisioning to complete the film, and the clever cameos of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell (all stepping in for Ledger) add some life to the proceedings. But it’s difficult, really, to hang your hat on any one person, I think to the story’s detriment.
That said, by and large I enjoyed the film. Gilliam’s vision can often be perverse and challenging, and some of his recent work hasn’t rewarded the effort, but the auteur’s unbridled filmmaking enthusiasm won me over to this one.