Terry Gilliam is an artist and filmmaker whose travails in Hollywood are well-known. His visual aesthetic always treads a fine line between beautiful and grungy, fantastical and earthy, and this film is a perfect vehicle for his sensibility. In fact, one could even say it is almost about himself. The Imaginarium is a place you can go, sort of inside the mind of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), which then becomes a world of your own imagination’s creation. It also is a place where you decide the path your soul will take. This sounds incredibly esoteric, but Gilliam is an old hand at making the esoteric accessible (Brazil, Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, etc.). It’s evident that with this film, someone threw a pile of money at Gilliam, perhaps too much. His early low-tech, low-cost work with Monty Python and his later battles with studios over budgets and his visions have taught him to make magic out of molehills. In Parnassus, he has a mountain and some scenes in the Imaginarium suffer from over-slickness, lacking some soul somewhere. That said, the visuals and images and concepts are right up to what I expect from him, this is barely a quibble.
Continuing Gilliam’s other filmic tradition of having something awful happen to every production, his charismatic costar Heath Ledger dies during principal photography. It’s evident from the credits and dedications that Ledger was much beloved and that this project probably continued as a memorial more than as a “damn the Gilliam curse” effort — but the film’s lack of Ledger in certain scenes is handled so cleverly that if you didn’t know, you would never think to ask why it wasn’t him in those scenes. Inside the Imaginarium, Ledger’s character has four faces, only one of which is Heath’s. His other incarnations are the perfectly-cast Johnny Depp, the adequately cast Jude Law, and the totally left-friend Colin Ferrell. Their casting was a poignant necessity, but the handling of it is straight Gilliam.
The Imaginarium travels Elizabethan-style in a horse-drawn portable stage, with gaslight effects and operatic makeup and centuries-old theatrical conventions. Their show is not unlike the surreal gorgeousness of the club in Moulin Rouge, but much older, more tattered and threadbare, and it straddles the line between dream and reality. Not surprisingly, their show fails to make a splash parked outside a pub or a shopping mall filled with modern, cynical, busy people. The immortal Dr. Parnassus travels with his doll-like daughter (Lily Cole), her fervent admirer (Andrew Garfield), and a seemingly also immortal confederate, Verne Troyer. They are pursued by a suave, John-Waters-mustachioed Devil (Tom Waits) — and you can see the structure of a timeless fairy tale already. Once they meet the Mysterious Stranger (Ledger) you know you’re in for an epic confrontation. Their tale is timeless but also illustrative of the increasing difficulty of wonder and imagination to flower in our modern world. Hmm, who would be bitter about that?
Most of the film is artsy rather than effectsy, and actually it tends to drag a bit whenever the big deal effects become the meat rather than the spice of the scene. Gilliam’s absurdist sensibilities and the clashing of epic fates make good bedfellows, but sometimes the trip into the CGI world are comparatively flat and dull compared to what the seductive Ledger and his anachronistic mountebanks can do with a foldout stage and garish props. For every blatant and charmingly clumsy stage artifice they show to the public are a dozen gigantic floating wonders inside the Imaginarium. This film does not carry the same profound weight as the Fisher King, but it treads similar emotional ground.
Abandoning oneself to the film, as the rich lady shoppers do mid-film, is the best way to enjoy it. It’s magical and sweet and the technological interruptions are few and easy to forgive, so give it a shot. If you happen to stay until the end of the credits, you might hear something from the back of the theatre that makes you think Heath was in the theatre with you all along.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/24/09
Time in minutes 122
Director Terry Gilliam
Studio Sony Pictures Classics