It is rather unfortunate that since his masterful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Terry Gilliam has struggled to not only get funding for his films, but to get them made at all. From the compromised The Brothers Grimm (2005) to the little-seen Tideland (2005), fans of this idiosyncratic auteur have often had to endure agonizingly lengthy intervals between films as he has found Orson Welles’ famous quote about filmmaking – “It’s about two percent movie-making and 98% hustling.” – to be painfully true. After the unevenness of the aforementioned films, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) was seen as a return to form with Gilliam writing an original screenplay with long-time collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). The end result was vintage Gilliam who was able to cut loose and let his fantasy film freak flag fly free. However, it came at a terrible price when his leading man, Heath Ledger, died suddenly partway through production, which was subsequently temporarily suspended until Gilliam was able to come up with some creative tweaking. He enlisted Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to complete Ledger’s scenes and finish Gilliam’s labor of love.
A ramshackle traveling roadshow makes its way through the dirty streets of London, England (the shots of homeless people sleeping on the street evokes Gilliam’s ode to them in The Fisher King) before stopping outside a nightclub under a bridge. It is part-theater (with cheap sets reminiscent of the play put on in Baron Munchausen) and part-magic show as the benign Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) offers some kind of New Age-y promise of fulfillment. When a drunken club kid makes some crude sexual advances towards his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), she takes him through a mirror that acts as a gateway to a surreal magical world allowing Gilliam to cut loose with his trademark flights of fancy. A person’s experience in this realm reflects their personality and so a self-absorbed little boy finds himself in a slightly menacing version of Candyland.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus resembles Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) in that all three films feature a scrappy small group of outsiders that dwell on the fringes of society and barely get by on their unique skills. Gilliam takes us behind the curtain to show how this small group of dreamers ekes out an existence. Anton (Andrew Garfield) serves as the master of ceremonies, of sorts, and is sweet on Valentina who dreams of leading a normal life. Percy (Verne Troyer) is Parnassus’ confidant and comic relief as well as driver of their caravan. Unbeknownst to Valentina, her father made a deal with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) a.k.a. The Devil: in exchange for being granted immortality, he must give him any child of his when they turn 16 years of age. Valentina is only three days from this age and Parnassus tries to figure some way out of it.
Possible salvation comes in the form of a mysterious stranger that Anton and Valentina rescue from a hangman’s noose under a bridge. He (Heath Ledger) eventually wakes up scared, disoriented and suffering from amnesia. Parnassus is convinced that he’s been sent by Mr. Nick as a way to change their agreement. Nevertheless, he takes the man in and makes him part of the troupe, Valentina dubbing him George, but whom we son learn is actually Tony Shepherd who runs a sizable charity. His job is to recruit a potential audience and turns out to be quite adept at fleecing people of their spare change.
Christopher Plummer brings a world-weary gravitas to Parnassus. Throughout the film he makes you wonder if his character genuinely has magical abilities or if he is merely a charlatan who resorts to age-old con man tricks. Parnassus does love his daughter and will do anything to keep her from Mr. Nick’s clutches even if it means taking five souls – too bad he’s not very good at it. Much like the Baron in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Sam Lowry in Brazil (1985), and Parry in The Fisher King (1991), Parnassus is a dreamer who believes in “the power of the imagination to transform and illuminate our lives.”
Heath Ledger was a versatile actor that could move effortlessly back and forth form big studio films like The Dark Knight (2008) and small independent films like Candy (2006). The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is somewhere in-between and the actor immerses himself with trademark gusto. Tony is the audience surrogate – the most “normal” of any of the characters, but he soon fits in seamlessly with this ragtag troupe. Ledger plays Tony as a passionate smooth-talker that, in one memorable scene, persuades a female mall shopper to enter the Imaginarium. Tony is a meaty role for the actor to sink his teeth into, allowing him to be broad and theatrical and also to bring it down in intimate scenes. In what could have been a jarring change turns out to be a fantastic decision to have Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell portray the Imaginarium incarnations of Tony. They each use their own unique type of charisma to convey Tony’s seductive powers of persuasion.
Tom Waits brings a wonderfully droll sense of humor to the role of Mr. Nick. He portrays a mischievous trickster patiently biding his time until he can take Valentina as per his deal with Parnassus. Waits has a blast playing this deliciously amoral character his scenes with Plummer crackle with a playful energy. A pre-The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Andrew Garfield is good as Anton, the M.C. who is relegated to a background role when Tony takes over and becomes jealous of how the enigmatic interloper charms Valentina.
As you would expect from a Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features some breathtaking visuals, like the immense, snowswept monastery that Parnassus lived in many years ago or the grungy, noisy streets of London, which demonstrates the director’s versatility of working in largely imagined worlds while also utilizing actual locations. The obvious artificiality of the Imaginarium sequences is reminiscent of the Moon sequence in Baron Munchausen. It isn’t that Gilliam had to make due with substandard special effects, but that the obvious lo-tech look of some scenes is intentional as he indulges in his love of the theater. Not surprisingly, the Imaginarium is a surreal realm that follows a kind of dream logic and so you have things like a song and dance number with burly policemen wearing dresses and twirling truncheons.
The film’s central theme concerns the lost art of telling a good story, which is best summed up by Parnassus when he tells Mr. Nick, “Somewhere in this world, right now, someone else is telling a story, a different story, a saga, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death – it doesn’t matter … You can’t stop stories being told,” to which the dapper antagonist deadpans, “That’s a weak hypothesis.” In fact, Parnassus believes so much in it that he makes a deal with the Devil so that he can tell stories forever. Unfortunately, in contemporary times it is harder and harder to find people who want to hear a story being told what with the myriad of modern conveniences that compete for our time be it social media or cell phones.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus champions the power of imagination and the art of telling a good story – something that we are in dire need of in an age where our lives are increasingly dominated by technology and our attentions spans are fragmented by a myriad of distractions. Gilliam believes in good ol’ fashion storytelling. As always, the cynic and the romantic are at odds in Gilliam’s films and this one is no different. Sometimes, the cynical ending wins out as with 12 Monkeys (1995) and sometimes it’s the romantic on as with The Fisher King. What sides does Parnassus go with? Ah, well, as a little boy asks late in the film, “Does it come with a happy ending?” to which Percy replies, “Sorry, we can’t guarantee that.”