The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
- Directed by Terry Gilliam
- Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
- Starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole
- Classification: PG
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus takes us deep into the imagination of Terry Gilliam, which once was a splendid place to visit. And might prove so again. But not here, because this film is less a coherent exercise of imagination than a haphazard lecture on its importance, a lecture that eventually dwindles into self-indulgence. Given his talent and his many moviemaking travails, it's easy to feel sorry for Gilliam, but a lot harder to see him feeling sorry for himself.
Tellingly, we start with a relic from the past ambling through the chaos of the present. A team of horses pulls a medicine show wagon, a travelling stage, along the busy streets of modern London. Most everyone ignores it, save for a few drunken revellers spilling out of a pub. In the wagon is the immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), attended by his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), an assistant called Anton (Andrew Garfield), and, since the whole enterprise is already surpassingly weird, Percy the requisite dwarf (Verne Troyer). Requisite too is the looking glass at stage centre. Paying customers passing through it enter the teeming mind of Parnassus himself, and then, duly impressed, get spit back to their humdrum world.
Of course, this realm of the fantastic is an obvious correlative of Gilliam's cinematic imaginarium, which houses such wonders as Brazil and Time Bandits . But this time, tricked out with CG effects, it's more wonky than wonderful, and mainly forgettable. Even what's remembered, like that singing chorus of transvestite cops, is better forgotten. Meant to be a blissful escape, the place too often feels like a tedious trap, and on the whole we're glad to be expelled back to London.
There, Dr. P continues his centuries-old spat with Nick the gravel-voiced devil (who else but Tom Waits). Seems they're both gambling men, and the fate of Valentina hinges on their latest wager. Meanwhile, the troupe rolls on and, one dark night, they spot a hanged man in a white suit dangling from the Blackfriars Bridge. When the man is cut down, then resurrected, and we recognize the actor, there's definitely a poignant frisson: Yes, this is the character played by the late Heath Ledger (who died in the middle of shooting). Tony is his name, a young guy who has his own troubled past but, given a second chance, puts his silky tongue to use commercializing the show, drawing in a bigger audience, and, much to Anton's dismay, catching the eye of sexy Valentina.
Unfortunately, this is where an already fractured plot goes completely to pieces. Soon, Russian mobsters with their corrupting money are giving chase, and we're in and out of that damned imaginarium, and God knows what's going on. Maybe that devil does too, but, alas, he ain't saying. Now much has been made of the fact that, after Ledger's death, the role was taken on serially by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. In any other script, that would have presented a problem. In this one, where folks are constantly morphing through time and space and different shades of unreality, it just doesn't seem to matter much, which is a big problem in itself. When confusion is the rule, how can any performance be exceptional?
Ledger, Depp, Law, Farrell - in keeping with the material, each is bizarrely theatrical, chewing the scenery in their different fashions. Ironically, though, they all seem interchangeable here, just so many indentured servants to a master who's lost his way.
Admittedly, this is meant to be the tale of an artist losing his way - that's Gilliam's main point and the picture's dominant theme. Parnassus is clearly his alter ego, a weary creator who fervently believes that the outpourings of imagination, the whisperings of the Muses, "keep the universe going." However, that belief is now getting undermined on all sides by the forces of philistine indifference, obliging him to make foolish gambles and broker bad compromises. Quoting the devil, Dr. P cries out, "He knew that the times would change, and one day no one would want my stories."
That's the director's lament too, and we want to feel for him but the film keeps getting in the way - instead, more sadly still, our recourse is to lament the lamentation. Sure, the movie biz has changed but, on the evidence here, so has Gilliam's ability to weave a compelling story. When the final frame ends, and the curtain rises, the only question that remains is the last one he would want us to ask: "Is it the times that have lost their magic, or the magician?"