Visuals, scruffy charm, trump confusion in ‘Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus’
Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus ought to be better than it is. Some scenes waffle and teeter all over themselves before coming to the point, and the narrative wanders off down a few too many dark passages, squandering its momentum. Gilliam coaxes splendid, witty playing out of his gifted cast in some scenes, but in other moments, it sounds as if they were directed to play from an outline of the story instead of a script.
But as a celebration of human imagination, and a passionate defense of the power of storytelling, Dr. Parnassus keeps drawing us into its cheerfully amok orbit. Now that technology has caught up with Gilliam’s own fervid imagination, he’s able to construct ecstatic onscreen dreamscapes alongside the tawdry fun-house charm of the film’s “realistic” sequences. Some lovely moments are also provided by Heath Ledger in his last film role, Tom Waits, as a purring, deadpan Devil, and a sly cameo by Johnny Depp.
The film’s title refers to a traveling carnival sideshow whose tattered painted scrims and antique vaudeville-style effects seem ridiculously passé in the run-down modern London alleyways and parking lots where the troupe sets up shop. Small wonder, since proprietor Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a 1,000-year-old mystic who once made an unfortunate pact with the Devil for immortality. And now that his delectable daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) is about to turn 16, it’s time to give the Devil his due.
The troupe is always broke, and smitten young assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield) is eager to run off with Valentina (who fantasizes over illicit homestyle magazines the way teenage boys drool over “Playboy”). But it’s no sham that they’re peddling; Dr. P’s “Imaginarium” is a magic-mirror portal that reconnects weary, multitasking patrons with the power of their own dreams. When the troupe rescues Tony (Ledger), who they find hanging by a noose under a bridge, he turns out to be a natural charmer who helps them modernize (and sensationalize) their show for a more lucrative venue in a ritzy shopping mall. Soon, “Mr. Nick ” (Waits, in all his wry, gravelly insouciance) resurfaces with a new wager: if the Imaginarium can claim five new souls before the Devil can, he’ll let Dr. P keep his daughter.
It’s laudable to suggest a big imagination is the opposite of evil, but the choice between dreams and sin makes for a slippery plot device; the two are hardly mutually exclusive. But even if we’re never sure what people are or are not committing their souls to inside the Imaginarium, the visionary images can be delightful—a sea of giant glimmering jellyfish, an Anubis-headed gondola on a glassy river that flips over into its own dark reflection when the dream turns carnal, a descent from a mountain on steps of clouds.
True, it never feels as if Valentina is in much danger, nor does Dr. P attain the rueful, Lear-like gravitas Gilliam obviously intends (especially in the overly drawn-out finale). But the film’s scruffy pleasures are in the details. The silky finesse with which Ledger’s Tony takes to the carny’s life is delicious, if bittersweet. And if the film is haunted by the tragedy that forced Gilliam to find a replacement for Ledger in three key scenes, Gilliam’s canny use of three other actors to represent different facets of Tony’s personality makes great narrative sense—Depp, at his most beguiling, Jude Law, when the character becomes more complicated, and Colin Farrell when his dark side surfaces.
Waits is a joy throughout. And a flashback to a remote mountaintop monastery of floating, chanting mystics who “tell the eternal story … that sustains the universe” is a winsome piece of poesy straight out of Gilliam’s own id. (Even when the Devil stops their mouths, he’s told, “Someone somewhere is telling a different story … you can’t stop stories from being told.”) This is a filmmaker who’s never let anything get in the way of the stories he wants to tell. As messy, imperfect, and frustrating as the results can sometimes be, Dr. Gilliam’s Imaginarium is still a rich and wondrous place to visit.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS ★★★
With Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole and Tom Waits. Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Directed by Terry Gilliam. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 122 minutes. Watch movie trailer >>>