While this review contains no real spoilers, there are some comments that may connect dots for readers paying attention. I have no interest in spoiling the film, but the nature of this movie requires me to talk a little bit more about events in the third act than I normally would in a review.

For most of its running time I found Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to
be sort of innocuously enjoyable. The movie never grabbed me or moved
me but I found it watchable and interesting. And then the final half
hour came and the entire film just crumbled around me, turning into an
absolute disastrous mess.

The easy way out is to say ‘Of course
the movie’s a mess. The lead actor died halfway through filming, so
nothing worked out the way Gilliam planned.’ And that’s sort of fair;
losing your lead is a major burden for any film, let alone an indie
like this. But I suspect that the last half hour would have still be a
disaster no matter who was playing Ledger’s character of Tony. The
final half hour has characters doing things that not only make no sense
for themselves but are actually wildly against their own best interests
in every possible way. On top of that, the resolution of the movie
itself is a head scratcher that never quite makes any sense.

Which
is a pity because while I think the other hour and a half of the film
was decidedly minor, it was good minor. This film is old territory for
Gilliam – oh, the power of the imagination! – but it’s old territory he
works well. The immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) travels
London in a rickety old horsedrawn wagon along with his daughter
Valentina (the extra-terrestrially stunning Lily Cole), an obnoxious
little person (Verne Troyer) and an orphan boy he raised (the very
charismatic Andrew Garfield); the group puts on little shows for
passersby and tries to get them to pay five quid for a trip through the
Doctor’s magic mirror. It leads into your imagination (and/or
Parnassus’ mind. The film’s a touch vague on this, but I guess all good
magic should be a touch vague) where you will eventually have the
chance to make a choice. One direction leads your soul to the devil
(Tom Waits) and the other to Parnassus (although he doesn’t seem to
actually do anything with the souls. They’re just numbers on a
scorecard).

It turns out that the devil and Parnassus have a
very long history, one filled with deals and bets. The fallout of one
previous deal is that the devil gets to claim Parnassus’ kids as soon
as they turn 16, and it’s a couple of days until Lily’s 16th birthday.
Desperate to save his daughter, Parnassus gets into another bet with
the devil – whoever can claim five souls in the next two days wins. If
Parnassus wins, Lily is set free.

Just as this deal is made a
new situation arises: the troupe find a man hanging from a noose under
a London bridge. They rescue him and take him into the group when he
claims to have no memory of his previous life. It turns out that this
new guy, Tony, has a gift for salesmanship that the Imaginarium team
had previously lacked, and soon money and souls are pouring in.

What’s
really weird about the movie is that Gilliam obviously fucking hates
Tony. At first it’s not obvious; Tony has a dark past of some sort, but
we don’t know what it is. And the way the film plays out we think that
perhaps this is all about Tony’s redemption from his dark past. But
there’s a central metaphor at work here that makes it so that Tony must
be a horrible person: the devil is Hollywood, Parnassus is Gilliam (a
fucked up old man telling stories that no one in the modern world seems
to care about) and Tony is the latest and greatest Hollywood filmmaker
– a slick salesman, but utterly unaware of the world inside the
Imaginarium and all about money, not about winning souls.



When Tony does finally go into the Imaginarium things gets wonky.
Ledger died after doing all the location shooting; this means that he
never shot (or did not shoot enough) of the stuff inside the
Imaginarium, all of which is green screen FX work. Gilliam famously
hired a trio of actors – Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – to
replace him in these scenes. The effect here is that when Tony goes
into the Imaginarium he no longer looks like himself (the explanation
is given that it’s because he’s always traveling in with someone
else, and their imagination is the one that shapes the Imaginarium,
thus remolding him to fit with their thoughts and fantasies. Which
doesn’t make a lick of sense as no other character has this happen to
them when they travel into the Imaginarium. Further, the movie has a
clumsy scene at the beginning where a guy enters the Imaginarium and
his face changes, but it’s not clear if he’s in his own imagination or
Valentina’s (a drunk lout, he’s chased her into the Imaginarium looking
to apparently rape her); to me this only added to the general logical
confusion of how the Imaginarium works. I know that magic is vague,
etc, but the Imaginarium appears to operate under no fixed rules of any
sort), and this just muddles the central metaphors of the film. What
does it mean that Tony’s face is changeable in the Imaginarium? Is it
that he’s two (or in this case, four) faced? Is it that he doesn’t know
who he is? Is it that he’s all things to all people? I have no idea,
and I suspect that Gilliam doesn’t either.



But again, that’s a problem that can be laid at the feet of Ledger’s
casket. It’s obvious that there were some rewrites in this Imaginarium
scenes – there’s one moment where Johnny Depp all but stops the movie
to deliver a speech about how when famous people die young they stay
beautiful and become gods – but the rewrites couldn’t change the
outside of the Imaginarium scenes, all of which seem to be going to a
different place than the within the Imaginarium scenes.



At some point I want to revisit this film and write in more detail
about the ending, which I just about hated. I think it makes no sense,
it has one character ‘heroically’ endangering another character’s soul
for grotesquely selfish reasons and it becomes a mess of people running
around and yelling in front of fairly unconvincing CGI backdrops. While
I didn’t think the rest of the film was all that particularly special,
the finale truly feels slap-dash.



Getting Johnny Depp to replace Heath Ledger was sort of genius, since
it seems like Ledger was playing Depp in his scenes. The actor’s fine
in his final role, but the schism between the performances don’t add up
to a full character. This is especially problematic in the final
sequence, where Farrell is playing Tony; it’s impossible to be sure if this was
how Ledger was going to play these scenes. It certainly doesn’t feel
like it, and in fact the final moment we see Ledger on screen before he
goes into the Imaginarium feels very at odds with everything Farrell
does. Ledger is fine as Tony, but his death robbed him of the ability
to play out the most interesting aspects of the character and to bring
his vision of Tony to a conclusion. This quartet of actors makes for a
fine example of how different a role can be in different hands, even
when those different hands are specifically trying to fit in with one
another.



The actor I wanted to see more of was Garfield as Anton, the orphan boy
who is lovesick for Valentina. Garfield’s a terrific presence, and his
early conflicts with Tony, who immediately becomes an object of
attention from Valentina, are interesting. Garfield and Ledger have a
chemistry that works, and a chemistry that he doesn’t share with the
other actors playing Tony, another thing that makes the later
Imaginarium sequences fall flat. Another great performance comes from
Tom Waits as the devil; the singer plays it a touch broad, reminding me
of Buster Pointdexter in Scrooged (a comparison I swear
I mean as a huge compliment). Waits is able to have lots of fun with
his role, and his every minute on screen is a pleasure.



Would The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus have been
better if Ledger had survived? It’s hard to say. Clues tell me that it
might not have been – for one thing, the movie’s repetitive structure
was obviously always in the script. For another, Gilliam’s vision
exceeds his budget in a big way. While some of the CGI in the
Imaginarium sequences is good, much of it is cartoony and flat and
garish; maybe it’s a personal choice but if something’s going to look
phony (and I’m assuming some of this stuff is meant to look a little
phony) I’d prefer it be made out of real materials and not pixels. I’d
love to see what Michel Gondry did with the Imaginarium, and I’m sort
of sad to realize that Terry Gilliam’s visuals just don’t move me
anymore. The real world stuff looks good, and I think that Gilliam
remains a director who should be working on sets with real props and
real dressing; green screen vistas don’t have the grit and reality of
the worlds he usually creates. Too many of the Imaginarium worlds look
like Windows 98 screen savers – big floating shoes! A literal
candyland! These things don’t feel Gilliam-esque to me.



The good news is that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a movie that is deeply flawed and ultimately fails, is at least watchable, unlike Gilliams last film, the wretched Tideland.
The reality is that if Gilliam wants to keep telling stories that
require this level of effects, he’s going to have get back in the
devil’s good graces and leave behind his rickety traveling wagon. Parnassus is a film that’s hobbled
by the script and the death of its lead, but it’s also hobbled by its
limited budget that keeps the director’s vision stuck at a video game
level.

6 out of 10