The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (PG-13) Directed by: Terry Gilliam. Written by: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Terry Gilliam film that has stirred in me any sense of wonder or joy.
At last then, here is a new picture from the director that does both of those things. For that reason alone The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a work to treasure. Filled with elaborate, mind-boggling visuals and moments of madcap fantasy, Parnassus is also one of the more thoughtful Gilliam concoctions; taking the concept of the storyteller trapped within a world of the mundane and tweaking it to create a film that feels like his most personal yet.
If Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are portraits of the dreamer in the aging process, then Imaginarium is a look at the struggle of the artist when no one wants to buy his particular brand of enchantment. Those films were all three unbridled flights of fancy, works brimming with restless imagination and wild invention. Dr. Parnassus comes at the end of a long drought for Gilliam —his last few pictures died at the hands of freak accidents, studio interference or his own inability to reign in his fevered vision. As a result, it has a sense of weariness and earth-bound wanderlust, scrabbling across grimy London streets to drink at the oasis of fleeting dream worlds that sparkle and fade back into the smoky night.
The story, as hammered together by Gilliam and his long-time collaborator Charles McKeown, tells the tale of the immortal Dr. Parnassus, a monk who made a deal with the devil and earned for his troubles everlasting life, lost love, and a daughter who will become the property of Satan on her 16th birthday. Centuries later, Parnassus is tooling around London, moving his imaginarium from town to town in hopes of luring in marks and engaging them in a phantasmagoric showdown wherein he and the devil will battle for their souls. If Parnassus can snag 5 souls in 3 days, then he wins, and Lily will be saved. The imaginarium, a medieval rolling theater decorated in carnival paintings, is the enchantment by which the good doctor will achieve this. Patrons enter and once they have passed through the mirror, they are catapulted into a dream world that reflects their own sublime desires, values and beliefs, with Parnassus and the Devil hiding in the corners, offering up their respective wares.
In the past, Gilliam has often conjured his surrealist fantasies from practical materials and effects; designing massive sets and hand-crafted components to bring to life worlds that felt like real spaces. In Parnassus, he has traded up for computer-generated visuals and everything we see amounts to actors standing in front of a green screen. This, to be sure, flattens some of the images and instead of the old-school theatricality of Brazil or Time Bandits, we have to settle for the frantic zip and zoom of a high-tech pinball game crossed with interactive digital matte paintings.
In the hands of a lesser talent, these sequences would be devoid of personality and surprise, but Gilliam imbues the same sense of passion and odd-ball whimsy that he applied to his older works. Remember the man who wore the ship upon his head like a hat in Time Bandits, or those images of Sam Lowry blissfully soaring cotton-candy clouds on his mechanical wings? This time around, we have the singular experience of watching Tom Waits in a black bowler hat, grinning from behind the controls of a gigantic, bosomy Russian bubushka as it crushes and tromps across a blasted, burned-out landscape.
The fantasies of the imaginarium have been designed in direct contrast to the way Gilliam imagines the real-world sequences of London. Everything in the streets is lit in a dank yellow, or washed-out blue, and the alleys and tenements have never look so decrepit and worn down. Characters dress in rags or soiled suits, and later when they move the imaginarium to a modern shopping center, it is filled with glittering, hollow people and vast, lonely interiors. The fantasy worlds are of course the bread and butter, featuring forests of giant jellyfish using their tendrils to push through clouds full of sizzling electricity. There are ladders that extend miles and miles into the sky, and colossal airships sporting leering faces drift across hills of glittering hard candy. There is much to see and experience, but alas, these scenes are not the bulk of the film. Instead, Gilliam is relying upon his plot and his actors far more here than I’ve seen him do since Twelve Monkeys or The Fisher King.
To be sure, he assembles a wonderful lot of performers; the excellent and grumpy Christopher Plummer, stunning newcomer Lily Cole, Tom Waits as an particularly oily Lucifer, and of course the late and still great Heath Ledger, who plays Tony, an errant amnesiac who joins Parnassus’ performing troupe when all seems lost. Lily Cole, as Parnassus’ daughter Valentina, is particularly good in her role and shares a chemistry with Ledger that works well for the film’s midsection where Gilliam gets briefly bogged down with the particulars of his plot. Cole’s childlike features and curvy body seem at odds with each other, and she has an almost otherworldly aura that Gilliam no doubt enhances through film technique. He likes oddballs, and Plummer’s Parnassus, sage though he may be, is one of them. The doctor is old, tired and bitter and the remaining bits of hope he finds he hordes away from his makeshift family.
It is surprising then, to discover that Ledger’s character Tony is not only a secondary character, but also a particularly unsympathetic one. Tony is an extremely flawed man whose dark past is literally stalking him through the real world and the dreamland. A third act revelation all but makes him the film’s villain. And yet, as portrayed by Ledger, and then later his three stand-ins, he comes to life and bolsters the movie in the same way that the character expands Parnassus’ failing business; through pure showmanship.
As displayed in The Dark Knight, Ledger had no shortage of ability and quite possibly some hidden storerooms of quirkiness. He only gets to hint at that quirkiness here, but he’s among the handful of performers who feel right at home within Gilliam’s artificial fantasies. From the moment he comes into the movie, hanging by his neck underneath a bridge, to that last moment we see him as Tony, charging into the Imaginarium to unlock its treasures, he has our attention. If Gilliam is the broken-down old wizard looking for one more bit of spellbinding, the Ledger has become his erstwhile barker, calling back the disenchanted masses who are looking for nothing more than a little bit of magic.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is actually quite a bit magical; also heartfelt, frustrating and sometimes so erratic that it threatens to lose us. But what it holds at its heart is a worthwhile idea that there is still wonder and value to be had in dreaming, and that those things not easily seen or briefly glimpsed, may in the end, be worth much more than the endless tons of the tangible, rusting away here at our fingertips. It is not a perfect movie, or one that will appeal to everyone, but there is an Old Hollywood sort of splendor to it. Gilliam weaves betweens the mountains of melodrama, through the valley of absurdity and finally evades the fiery darts of pretension, to deliver an honest to goodness fairy tale for the modern age. The Devil be damned, Gilliam has triumphed in the face of adversity, and made a movie that both he and ‘Heath and his friends’—as the closing title card reads—can be proud of.