Terry Gilliam is as creative and convoluted as ever
Is there too much delirium in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium? Or not enough?
It’s hard to say, really. But that’s one of several semi-insoluble questions that make the filmmaker’s latest extravaganza both frustrating and fascinating.
There’s also the sad notoriety arising from the fact that one of the film’s main actors—Heath Ledger—died before the film was finished. That inevitably casts a certain pall over the whole thing, and yet that’s also one of the sources of some of the film’s most creative developments.
Ledger plays Tony, a man resurrected from the dead, who becomes the pivotal figure in the deals the eponymous Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is making with the devilish “Mr. Nick” (Tom Waits). Ledger’s Tony is present for the bulk of the role, but three other actors—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell—also appear as Tony in flashback-like episodes sandwiched into the film’s fantastical midsection.
The paradoxes and enigmas of Tony’s character—and of Dr. Parnassus’ magical world of mystical imagination—generate a rough mytho-poetic resonance in the convoluted scheme of things devised for Gilliam’s lavishly fantastical visions. Parnassus’ Imaginarium is a kind of traveling magic show that gives access to a species of Alice-in-Wonderland experiences, albeit with a good deal of Gilliam-style funk thrown in. As such, it also serves as a quasi-Pirandellian version of cinema as practiced by Gilliam, here and elsewhere (Time Bandits, Brazil, etc.).
There are some remarkable moments of extravagantly “surreal” visual imagery in all this, including some rapturously inspired use of CGI. But a fair amount of the action unfolds in semi-incoherent fashion, and that is a matter of some concern, especially insofar as The Imaginarium depends on a detectable storyline (i.e., Dr. Parnassus has sold his daughter to the devil, and the latter, a born gambler, keeps making grandiose side bets with Parnassus that give him a chance of getting her back).
Having also bargained for the gift of immortality, the haunted, semi-tragic, semi-heroic wizard is reputedly more than a thousand years old, and so it’s appropriate that he’s played with dignity and panache by Plummer, who seems both ageless and ancient, and who is of course a sort of immortal in the world of movie fantasy. The Ledger/Depp/Law/Farrell rendition of Tony’s several selves works out fairly effectively as well.
Waits’ devil is probably the best thing in the film. But it tells you something about the film’s unevenness that Verne Troyer (as Percy the dwarf), Lily Cole (as Parnassus’ daughter Valentina), and Andrew Garfield (as the eager-to-please Anton) are all memorable but not particularly well-employed.