What a beautiful, sprawling mess this is. Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a visual delight, with bizarre psychedelics that veer from beautiful to shocking. It’s a pity the story does not match Gilliam’s eye-popping ambitions. The actors are given little compelling material, and are reduced to odd caricatures. It follows the movie is devoid of tension – Gilliam isn’t exactly known for his tight plotting, and here he is no different. After an hour, his latest feels like an overlong music video with an A-list cast.
Stick with me here, as this’ll be a little bizarre. It’s modern-day London, and a traveling theater company, headed by the immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), entertains gawkers on the street. By walking through a portal, one can enter Parnassus’ mind, where he conjures your wildest fantasy. It’s quite an act, one that’s hindered by the amateurish production. Parnssus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and his apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield) do their best to maintain interest, yet business isn’t good. To make matters worse, Parnassus promised Valentina’s eternal soul to the Devil (Tom Waits), and he’s ready to collect. I guess this Devil is a gambling addict – he wagers he can capture five souls faster than Parnassus can. The Doctor agrees, and with the help of Tony the charismatic stranger* (Heath Ledger), perhaps he and his motley crew have a chance. Too bad the Devil has a few nasty tricks up his sleeve.
Many of Gilliam’s image are beautiful and striking. My favorite is when the content of a black river coils skyward and becomes the Devil’s noggin, re-imagined as a menacing cobra. Other locations, like an improbably imposing cliff, look like something out of a surrealist painting. Yet visual chicanery can sustain one’s attention for only so far. Tarsem’s The Fall has similarly grandiose images, yet its central relationship (the stuntman and the girl) maintains audience interest. Human stories are necessary to counterbalance ocular extravagance, otherwise viewers grow impatient. Making matters worse, Gilliam constantly revises his universe, so confused audiences spend too much time figuring how it functions. The final scenes contain a clumsy role reversal that barely functions as a twist. The Devil and Parnassus tempt the imaginarium’s visitors, and the implications of their captured souls is never clear. No one expects realism from the guy who brought us Brazil, yet a fantastical world should have functional rules – it’s how a director builds tension and engages an audience.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features Heath Ledger’s final performance, and it’s almost as if his death haunts the movie. The effect is bittersweet – his work shimmers with playful menace, and is the movie’s highlight. Other actors, even the always-welcome Tom Waits, cannot instill wit and energy into their characters. Gilliam has its share of die-hard fans – I can think of one in particular who’ll give me an earful for this review. The movie will undoubtedly give her plenty to enjoy, as she’ll quickly forgive the director’s shortcomings. For the rest of us, it’s difficult to accept his missteps.
* Gilliam had to rewrite the screenplay after Ledger’s death. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell step in for Ledger’s missing scenes – their contributions are memorable but brief. The extra actors aren’t a distraction, and the explanation for the change in Tony’s appearance is intriguing.