I’ve been a Terry Gilliam fan for a long time. Though I don’t think his films always work, I admire his imagination and vision – and his willingness to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Gilliam, as legendary for his run of bad luck as a filmmaker as for his fantastic visuals and dark humor, seemed to hit the ultimate snag with “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” when one of his stars, Heath Ledger, died of a drug overdose in the middle of production in early 2008. Rather than scrap the film, Gilliam found a device that allowed him to work around Ledger’s absence and finish the film.
The device itself is surprisingly seamless. The movie, unfortunately, is not.
So “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” winds up as yet another case of a film with not enough story for the amount of movie there is. There is a cornucopia of memorably fantastic images – but the script offers too much blather and not enough exploration of the themes Gilliam is pursuing.
The title construct is a traveling show, headed by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), and including his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and his various employees. Eventually they’re joined by a con man named Tony (Ledger), who doesn’t quite realize what he’s playing with here.
Because while it comes off as an elaborate illusion, the Imaginarium is real: a portal to a dimension in which one’s dreams can come true. If the person who enters this world (which is different for each person) has a pure heart, the dreamer is returned to reality, overcome with ecstasy at the visions he or she has seen, borne on a swing while laughing and grinning.
But for those who aren’t true of heart, the Imaginarium turns into a nightmare mousetrap, where the dreamer is transformed into a live-action cartoon character and transported to some Looney Tunes version of hell, never to return to the real world.
There’s more to the story, of course: Dr. P, it seems, has a series of long-standing bets with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Over the years, he has won immortality and eternal youth from the devil – but the stakes are rising. In fact, Dr. Parnassus’ debt to Mr. Nick involves Valentina’s soul – unless he can win one last bet.
It’s a fun idea but one which Gilliam and cowriter Charles McKeown muck around with in ways that confuse and distract. Part of that is the ramshackle nature of the traveling show caravan itself, with its bizarre assortment of employees (including Andrew Garfield and Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer) and its anachronistic appearance in the modern world. There’s also a subplot involving Tony, who owes more money than he can ever repay – and who has a dark secret of his own.
In retrofitting the plot after Ledger’s death, Gilliam came up with the notion that, upon entering the Imaginarium, the entrant can be whoever he/she chooses (or his/her mind allows him/her to become). Ledger’s Tony is established early on as a guy in a cream-colored suit with gray stripes and his hair in a ponytail.
In the late scenes, however, when Ledger leaps into the Imaginarium, he turns into someone else on the other side: Johnny Depp one time, Jude Law the next, Colin Farrell the time after that. And it works because each of these actors cuts the same figure as Ledger, when done up in the suit and ponytail. From behind, they’re nearly indistinguishable – and from the front, well, it’s all part of the slippery nature of reality within that realm.
But there’s a little too much of everything going on here: too much Mr. Nick (who isn’t really written as a character, beyond being a mustache-twirling devil), too much pointless friction between Parnassus’ various employees (including the Garfield character’s unrequited attraction to Valentina), and not enough time spent on what becomes the fulcrum of the plot (a battle for souls between Dr. P and Mr. Nick).
Plummer, who has been forced to play too many silky villains in his old age, is still a multi-faceted and surprising actor, as he shows here. Unfortunately, the material doesn’t match his talent. Ledger only seems to have time to build up a head of steam for this character before he disappears.
“The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is, perhaps, more interesting for what it wasn’t allowed to be than for what it is. As it stands, it’s a fascinating curiosity and little more.