Pity poor Terry Gilliam. It seems like every time he steps behind the lens (or even thinks about doing so), his motion picture plans are thwarted by some unseen tragedy. Universal would not release Brazil until a full page Variety ad (and a vote of confidence from the LA film critics) pressed the issue. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen almost destroyed a studio. He took over for a fired Alex Cox on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only to wind up being vilified for his revelatory, reverent treatment of the Hunter S. Thompson tome. And while he has had immeasurable success as a director (Time Bandits, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys), there have conversely been numerous off screen struggles to sour such celebrations.
So when it was announced that Heath Ledger had died of a drug overdose, all eyes were once again on the clearly “jinxed” ex-pat Python. The actor had been working on Gilliam’s latest leap of filmic faith, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and it looked like the production would falter and never finish. It wasn’t the first time for such a calamity to stifle the auteur’s outsized vision. The masterful documentary, Lost in La Mancha, illustrates the numerous natural and manmade debacles that left The Man Who Killed Don Quixote unproduced and relegated to myth. Oddly enough, Gilliam would not let his latest effort die with its young star. He summed up friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell and finished the mortality epic. The results are truly spellbinding.
Granted, much of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus plays like a sum up of Gilliam’s entire career. There’s Vern Troyer as a smarter than he looks sage little person (Bandits), an anti-modern society theme (Brazil), a central character who is part liar, part unstuck in time benefactor (Munchausen). There’s the poverty riddled fringe dwelling aspects of the Imaginarium traveling show (Fisher King), eye-popping picturesque hallucinations by way of a magic mirror (Fear and Loathing), and the child as cosmic choice (Tideland) dynamic as well. In fact, it’s as if the filmmaker felt this would be his final curtain call as agent provocateur of celebrated celluloid excess and figured he’d thrown in all his magic tricks. By doing so, he leaves other so-called visionaries in the 24 frames per second dust.
The main narrative focuses on an eon’s long battle between Parnassus (a stellar Christopher Plummer) and his arch nemesis, the Devil (an equally amazing Tom Waits). With both being incurable gamblers, they have spent their long lives wagering and waiting to see the results. After winning immortality, Parnassus wanted love. Thus a deal was struck – the man would get the woman of his dreams. Scratch would get the resulting child on her 16th birthday. With said celebration close at hand, Parnassus cooks up another bet. If he can collect five souls before the Devil does, he can keep his darling Valentine (Lily Cole). If Satan is successful, he will take the only thing the mind magician has ever loved.
Into this battle between imagination and vice comes a mysterious man named Tony (Heath Ledger). Initially stricken with amnesia, the show finds him hanging from a rope under a London bridge. As he slowly gets his memories back, Tony agrees to help Parnassus. At various stops around England, they lure people into the Imaginarium, there allowing their dreams and desires to flourish within a surreal CG realm of startling optical wonders. Of course, the Devil is always lurking in the background, ready to scoop up those who choose selfish need over selfless exploration. And Tony may have some issues in his past that put his loyalty to Dr. Parnassus, and his interest in Valentine, into question.
Many will come to this movie without any knowledge of Gilliam beyond his participation in that seminal sketch comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Others will remember his zany animation and crude comic style and still hang around to see what the artist formerly known as the Joker is up to here. For both of these curious passersby, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus will be confusing and unclear. Lacking perspective beyond the obvious eccentricities on display, they will wonder why anyone would care to salvage such a self-indulgent exercise. Naturally, they will be missing the point completely. As one of the last great proprietors of motion picture prestidigitation, Gilliam is his own protagonist. As you follow the fall of Parnassus, you see the story of the director’s rise, rejection, and reinvention of himself.
Indeed, Imaginarium is Gilliam’s most personal film. It wallows in the veiled Victorian excesses and cavalier cartooniness that has driven most of his work and maintains the mega-detailed, layered love affair with mischief and musical hall that separates him from other baroque (Tim Burton) and sinister (David Lynch) surrealists. At its heart is an allegorical look at the dreamer in decline, the man known for his infinite originality stripped of such enchantment and made human. Ledger’s Tony represents the corrupting influence of the real world – all money driven and immoral, standing as starkly in contrast of what Dr. Parnassus believes in as such other age old disparities as God and the Devil, good and evil.
For the sequences inside the Imaginarium’s mirror, Gilliam has gone CG and the results will remind many of three dimensional recreations of his Python past. This is especially true of a terrific moment (helmed by Law’s interpretation of Tony) where giant ladders split and turn into landscape traversing stilts. All throughout Imaginarium we are witness to mind-blowing concepts made real, from familiar bobby police heads as gateways to monks on floating carpets keeping the universe alive with stories. As in the work of Tarsem (The Cell, The Fall), Gilliam is an adult fabulist. His allusions are often dark and disturbing, their link to elements within the narrative as clear as they are cunning. That’s why his films require multiple viewings. It’s just impossible to catch all the connections the first time around.
As usual, Gilliam surrounds himself with a cast completely in sync with his ideas. Plummer is perfect as Parnassus, able to bring a wealth of worldly experience to what is, essentially, the most disconnected man on the planet. Troyer is also terrific, given a very meaty part and making it zip and zing. Cole can’t be much more than the idealized concept of innocence and beauty, but she more than holds her own, and as a young man enamored of his employer’s daughter, Andrew Garfield is the movie’s expositional – and exacting – center. That just leaves Ledger, and for his limited time onscreen, he’s terrific. He’s not really the leading man here – he almost a villain, playing all sides of the situation with a sly, snake like ability. As for the substitutes, Depp and Law are the best. Farrell gets the most screen time, but he doesn’t have the same dandy panache that carries Ledger’s interpretation of Tony. We buy it all, but only because in Gilliam’s backward illogical scheme, this is the way things are.
It will be interesting to see where the 70 year old director goes from here. Reports have him revamping and re-approaching Don Quixote next, a concept that has many devotees desperate for the final result. Until then, Gilliam will remain the maverick who never seems to make the movies he wants, and yet ends up delivering the masterworks we love. He will certainly be the one post-modern artist whose possible projects (The Defective Detective, Good Omens, his interpretation of Watchmen) would be far more intriguing than other filmmaker’s entire creative canon. If he never makes another movie – and with his luck, that’s more than likely – The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus would be an apropos swansong. It’s as vintage as the man himself, as per such label, is clearly getting better with age.