Bound to be remembered as Heath Ledger’s last movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is less an homage than a collection of gestures. That he first appears hanged, as Tony, a would-have-been murder victim left dangling from a bridge, is not a little creepy. Tony’s survival is reason for cheer, of course, as is the ensuing series of scenes featuring Ledger. But as the movie reveals its solution — filling in for its missing star with alternative pretty bodies, namely, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell — you see that its inelegance is oddly touching, deeply tragic and respectful. Without Heath Ledger, the movie must remain in pieces.
Tony’s hardly a center for the movie’s many fragments. Neither is he heroic or especially compelling; he is instead a little predictable, an amnesiac who’d rather not remember what he’s done, and a schemer without much of his own to gamble. He’s been left hanging because he’s crossed some bad guys, but he’s rather a bad guy himself, given a chance at redemption when he’s picked up by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his crew of traveling stage performers, but Tony’s not quite looking for that. He is impressed immediately by their wagon, though, which not only transforms into a stage for each evening’s performance, but also opens out into Parnassus’ imaginarium, his mind literalized, as he conjures the dreams and bad ideas of others, so their souls can be harvested for Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). The deal is one of those usually made with the devil, and Parnassus’ part is coming due, namely, he lives eternally while his beautiful, beestung-lipped daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) will head to hell on her 16th birthday, imminent as the film begins.
As the film begins, Parnassus hasn’t yet told Valentina about her fate. And as he struggles to do so, he makes a second wager, that is, if he can find five souls to sacrifice instead, she can keep on. Unfortunately, the volunteers are few, as the show — staffed by the girl along with Percy (Verne Troyer) and Anton (Andrew Garfield) — is rickety and passersby unimpressed, even by the magical mirror that serves as gateway to the imaginarium per se. Tony, it happens, is a master promoter, and when he comes on board, Parnassus sees a chance to solicit souls who think they’re consumers, who think they’re making their own choices. Once they willingly enter the imaginarium, they can be fooled into opting for eternal damnation, whether disguised as a last chance saloon or a boutique.
The metaphor isn’t subtle. It’s the movie business, of course, or any other entertainment that lures paying customers, souls who invest in any number of fictions, ranging from eternal youth to celebrity. “Not many people are attracted to the show,” Tony notes of Parnassus’ own presentation. “Change the style and the audience of the show. People want modern. We need to meet the public halfway. The secret is not to hide. Be bold, be colorful.” He’s David Falk to Parnassus’ Michael Jordan, a marketer who makes an art of selling.
The resulting increase in sales is most flatfootedly represented in a scene featuring a throng of lady shoppers, who emerge from the brightly lit Leadenhall Market in London and proceed to climb over one another to get onto Parnassus newfangled stage (that is, Anton in drag, Percy in blackface, and Valentina essentially naked). Proud of his unspecial effects, Tony watches the women literally throw themselves into the mirror, anticipating fulfilled dreams. No surprise, these dreams look hopelessly tacky on the mirror’s other side — a selection of shoes in one case, and in another (that rather looks like Michael Jackson’s video for “Leave Me Alone”), an array of icons, like James Dean and Princess Diana, floating on a river. The Johnny Depp version of Tony whispers into one shopper’s ear that these stars are better than ever now: “They are beyond fear,” he asserts. “Because they are forever young, they are gods.” She nods and accepts this truism as a good enough reason to follow their leads.
As Gilliam’s film careens from one weird image to another, it’s not unlike his other recent excavations of the creative mind, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Brothers Grimm (which also starred Ledger) to Tideland, alternately thrilling and mystifying, ostentatious and provocative. Tony’s own dreams are indicated in a series of ladders that shoot up into an ominous sky. As he tries to ascend (as Jude Law), he’s pursued by gangsters, though it’s not so clear whether they’re ruining or embodying his fantasy.
This collapse of nightmare and aspiration repeats Parnassus’ trajectory, where getting what you want makes clear that you didn’t want it, or wouldn’t have if you’d know what it was. Illusion being what it is (and isn’t), the men both learn their lessons and proceed as if they haven’t, leaving Valentina to pay the price. Yes, she has a chance to be saved by Anton, who has loved her forever, but this also means she’s dependent on a man to make a move. It’s a conventional fairy tale, but that doesn’t mean it’s wholly charming.