THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS
Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is filled with stunning visuals, an element his work has consistently delivered whether as an animator or director. Unfortunately, the story, co-written by Charles McKeown, stumbles around because it is weighted down trying to do so much.
Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) leads a traveling troupe through the streets of London, offering trips into the Imaginarium, a device that allows people to travel, with the doctor’s assistance, into a personal Wonderland where they have choices to make. The first person the audience sees enter is an unsuspecting, drunken young man. Once inside, his appearance changes (foreshadowing how they will deal with Heath Ledger's untimely death during production) and he eventually seeks refuge in Mr. Nick's Lounge Bar, never to be seen again.
Parnassus is a former monk with an on-going relationship with the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). The Doctor won immortality a thousand years ago, which he then parlayed when he met a woman he fell in love with. However, the cost was high: his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) gets turned over to Mr. Nick when she turns 16, a birthday quickly approaching. Since both men enjoy/can't resist gambling with each other, Mr. Nick wagers the first person to collect five souls wins Valentina. Parnassus has no choice to agree, but feels confident with the recent addition to his company of the amnesiac-ridden Tony (Heath Ledger), who demonstrates a gift of gab. Valentina is quite taken with Tony to the disappointment of troupe member Anton (Andrew Garfield) who is very suspicious of his rival.
While presenting a feast for the eyes, this is one of the few times I found a film suffered from dealing with too many ideas because many weren't fleshed out. Parnassus, who shuffles around town in his dilapidated traveling stage seems a stand-in for Gilliam, who grows more out of place as a storyteller as the years pass. The Doctor is hard to root for the more revealed about him. He has become a drunk and it's hard to fathom he could so easily give away his daughter to the devil.
The film starts out telling Parnassus' story, but then shifts to being Tony's story as we learn more about his character. After Ledger's loss, Gilliam found a way to recast the character with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell playing Tony at different times inside the Imaginarium. The idea works to a point, but not everyone who goes in changes appearance, so it’s not clear what the cause is other than the obvious, practical reasons.
While it would make a great coffee table book to showcase the visual effects and the cast delivers very good performances, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” ultimately doesn't make the right choices in terms of its story and is unsatisfying. Even though a Gilliam failure has more going for it than most less-talented directors' successes, I can't recommend it.