Directed by Terry Gilliam
Director Terry Gilliam has had a stream of bad luck experiences. His adaptation of Don Quixote infamously fell apart mid-production (as depicted in the documentary Lost in La Mancha), part of a tough decade or so in which he has released three films, all of which have had problems or been tampered with by the studio. He even appeared on the streets of New York City in 2006 holding a sign that said “Studio-less Film Maker… Family to support… Will direct for food.” So it comes as no surprise that the plot of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus revolves around the quest to continue telling stories even after an audience for them may have moved on.
Christopher Plummer stars as the titular doctor, whom many ages ago made a pact with the devil Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, acting as if the role was written for him) for immortality. He travels around modern day London in his horse-drawn collapsible theater with his accomplices Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), and daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). They sucker patrons into the Imaginarium’s mirror, a gateway into their imagination which fulfills their wildest dreams. After a moment of enlightenment, they are then forced to choose between Doctor Parnassus’ road to salvation which returns them to the real world or Mr. Nick’s sinful easy out, which commits their soul to hell. This ongoing wager for souls is mightily favoring Nick these days, until along comes Tony (Heath Ledger).
Parnassus, a mystical man, foresees a hangman entering his life in a tarot card. Tony is found hanging from a bridge over the Thames with a noose around his neck and runes on his forehead. He fits the bill and soon integrates himself into their little troupe, much to the chagrin of Anton, because Tony is quickly charming Valentina away from him. The fact that Tony is seen narrowly avoiding death time and time again in the film has a shadow of sadness hanging over it, as Heath Ledger infamously died of an apparent overdose during the filming of Parnassus. Gilliam’s curse seemingly extended beyond even that to producer William Vince who died of cancer after production was completed and Gilliam was struck by a car, cracking his vertebrae. He was quoted as saying afterward, “They got the star, the producer, and they were going for the director, and the fuckers failed on the last one.”
Only one scene in the film feels like it was edited around a lack of Ledger, otherwise his lack of presence is only felt within the Imaginarium itself. Tony is creatively played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell for certain scenes, respectfully seen through different people’s imaginary perceptions of Tony. The use of other actors is integrated well, because it is well within the film’s logic that when someone’s imagination idealizes a person to look a certain way, then they will appear as such. Each actor retains the variety of quirks that Ledger attributes to Tony, making the transitions quite smooth.
The worlds created within the Imaginarium itself are quite astounding. Inspired by famous illustrators and painters like Maxfield Parrish, Grant Wood, and Jose Maria Sert, each venture into a character’s imagination is wholly unique. These fully CGI creations never feel “realistic”, but then again, that’s kind of the point. Like the scene from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ where Eddie ends up in Toon Town, they are surreal masterpieces of the imagination that immerse our live action actors.
Gilliam’s unique style comes across successfully for the first time since 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His penchant for wide angle and fisheye camera lenses sometimes is a cliché, but when the scene is ripe for such treatment, it is a wonderfully surreal fit. No one mixes the real world and fantasy quite like Gilliam, who has a truly handpicked cast at his disposal here that can balance the drama and comedy of it all (excepting Verne Troyer who despite his best efforts, can’t stand up to Christopher Plummer). If you have enjoyed Brazil, Time Bandits, or any number of other Terry Gilliam movies, you should enter The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
*** Three Stars
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is still in theaters if you look hard enough. It arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on April 27th.