The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus opens Friday in select theaters
The eponymous thousand-year-old storyteller in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, played by the equally ageless Christopher Plummer, rambles around London aboard a steampunk carriage. Traveling with his theater troupe, he offers audience members the chance to escape reality through a "magic mirror" that actually serves as a portal into the doctor's phantasmagorical mind.
But the real star of the film is director Terry Gilliam, the mad cinematic wizard who has described his latest shambolic fantasy trip as "autobiographical." To wit, this is the story of an aging showman with a vivid imagination "being frustrated, trying to amaze people and they're not paying attention."
On cue, Imaginarium comprises everything that is both ingenious and infuriating about Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King). The former Monty Python member's visual flourishes remain as dizzying and hypnotic as ever, but they obscure the same lack of narrative underpinning that has crippled many of his lesser concoctions.
Parnassus' gift is the product of a deal with the Devil (a remarkably creepy Tom Waits), who has come back to collect his end of the bargain, the doctor's daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Enter Tony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious amnesiac who joins the tatterdemalion sideshow and eventually offers way to improve its commercial fortunes. "We need to meet the public halfway," he explains. "The secret is not to hide, [but] to go places people never expected you at."
Ledger passed away mid-production before his scenes through Parnassus' looking glass could be shot. Gilliam's solution was to cast a trio of actors—Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell—as extra-dimensional variants of Tony, a stopgap measure that actually works rather well within the Imaginarium's otherworldly context.
A pall hangs over Imaginarium, but most of it necessarily stems from Ledger's presence and our knowledge of his impending demise. Still, while this vehicle may be a polished clunker that cannot carry its star very far, Ledger manages to wring out one last dynamic performance. There is an abundance of ideas floating throughout Imaginarium's ether. In places, Gilliam takes swipes at those who suggest he modulate his moviemaking to suit popular tastes. Indeed, Gilliam's casting of four A-listers to play Tony, while dictated by tragic circumstance, can be seen as a cynical commentary on Hollywood's affinity for celebrity over content when it comes to assessing a film's marketability.
But while Gilliam may cast himself as a cinematic martyr, many of his wounds are self-inflicted. His storyline here is typically outlandish, if not indecipherable—a rickety framework for the director's disjointed, CGI-laden sequences. Coherence remains elusive, seemingly only one enlightening but ultimately nonexistent scene away. Gilliam devotees may decipher some order out of the onscreen chaos, but the rest of us will welcome our return trip back to reality.