None of these are Heath Ledger, but each hits a pinch-hit homerun.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS
Directed and Co-written by Terry Gilliam
2009, 122 mins.
Infinity Features Entertainment
* * * * *
At last! The Terry Gilliam movie we’ve been waiting for. Past projects from the former Monty Python cartoonist such as Brazil and The Fisher King have shown flashes of brilliance accompanied by dollops of sloppiness and structural anarchy. Quite a few—including The Brothers Grimm (2005), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and Jabberwocky (1977)—are the movie equivalent of a train wreck. Not this time. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a work of genius that’s more creative, thought-provoking, and inventive than anything you’ll see in the overrated Avatar.
Gilliam is (in)famous for having disaster strike on his sets, and this film is no exception. It co-stars Heath Ledger, who died before filming was finished. (In addition, producer Bill Vince died a week after filming ended and Gilliam was struck by a car and suffered a cracked vertebra!) Ledger’s death necessitated radical rewriting and recasting. Although the circumstances requiring this are sad, Ledger would doubtless have been pleased by the finished product.
Terry Gilliam films are seldom constrained by tight plots. The story line of Imaginarium is pretty much a pastiche of Faust and Alice in Wonderland on acid. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the title character, gambles with the Devil/Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Parnassus—the name evokes the home of Apollo and the Muses—is a benevolent soul who wishes to impart Apollonian wisdom to the world and relieve suffering. Like the Greek god, however, he has character flaws, not the least of which is that he shares Nick’s love of gambling. Even when Parnassus wins, Nick is generally more clever, as when Parnassus extracts victory in the form of immortality but forgets to attach eternal youth to the deal. Centuries later—after a long stint as a holy man instructing devotees—Parnassus bargains for temporary youth when he falls in love with a comely lass. His wife dies giving birth to their lovechild, Valentina (Lily Cole), and the deadline for payment is fast approaching. If Parnassus doesn’t win five souls to his cause before Nick claims five, the latter claims Valentina’s soul upon her sixteenth birthday.
This is more of a contest than one might imagine. Gilliam presents a post-belief 21st century world in which people are skeptical of both holy men and devils. Parnassus is a tottering old man traveling in a ramshackle horse-drawn cart that opens into a stage for a show that’s what you’d get if you crossed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a carnival sideshow. Valentina sits virginally upon the stage, the love-struck Anton (Andrew Garfield) dresses as Mercury and performs a lame juggling act, and Parnassus does cheap mind-reading tricks for tips tossed by passersby. The only truly wise person in the troupe is Percy (Verne Troyer), a dwarf confidant to Parnassus. But there is a secret to the show. The “imaginarium” flogged in the come-on is real—a mirror through which one can pass into a dream world where id meets superego and both salvation and damnation are possible.
Things are bad enough for Parnassus and they get worse when Valentina and Percy cut down a hanging man, Tony (Heath Ledger), from London Bridge and revive him. Is Tony the awaited savior, or one of Nick’s minions? Watch the film to find out and be prepared to take a wild ride through your own imaginarium. Gilliam was able to enlist the late Ledger’s friends—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell—to finish his parts and did so without resorting to cheap costuming. Because everyone inside the imaginarium has a personally tailored vision, Tony doesn’t *have* to look the same in every scene; he merely has to be believable in the moment.
This film is delicious fun on every level. There are echoes of old Python gags—such as dancing policemen in hose and heels—wonderful special effects, and terrific acting. Each of the Tonys is wonderful, with special kudos to Depp’s performance as the most egocentric of the four. Cole is a fresh new face whose desirability is enhanced by her pre-Raphaelite beauty, Troyer is a pussycat one moment and a tiger the next, and Plummer thunders and blunders across the screen as if he’s Ian McKellen as a Bowery-issue Gandalf. Best of all is Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, a wise Devil who knows that pursuit is more pleasurable than possession, and that the game is more fun than the final outcome. Amen to that. We were so engrossed in this film that it we hated to see it end.