Terry Gilliam’s much beleaguered The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus (you don’t get much more beleaguered than having your star die during production) is quite simply a wonderful film and a major achievement—assuming you’re on the film’s wavelength, and I very much am. I can, however, imagine quite a few people who will dislike the film intensely. For that matter, I won’t deny that the film has its flaws—none of which are related to its troubled production—but the flaws have their own brilliance and seem to me to be part and parcel of Gilliam’s vision. How sympathetic you are to that vision probably determines how you’ll feel about Dr. Parnassus.
I’m not uncritical of Gilliam’s work—he probably has more misses with me than hits—but I admire it and his adherence to making his films his way. Apart from Tim Burton, Gilliam may be the only complete fantasist we have working in film today. The difference with Gilliam is that his work tends to be less accessible. Gilliam’s films have the sense of being made with no thought of pleasing anyone other than himself. We’re permitted to come along on his fantasy journeys, but he’s not about to coax us. It’s as though Gilliam assumes that if a film interests and pleases him, there’s at least a chance it will do the same with an audience.
With Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam might be said to be at his Gilliam-est. At bottom it’s a good vs. evil story—something that describes most of Gilliam’s work. Its most obvious predecessors are Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), but that might be somewhat misleading. If you replace the Supreme Being from Time Bandits with the fantastic fraud of Baron Munchausen you get something of the feel of Dr. Parnassus, but that’s not enough. Here Gilliam offers a good and evil story, complete with numerous allegorical hints, presented in terms of a game being played by the representatives of each—Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). It’s part Satan tempting Jesus and part the story of Job—with its own spin on it all and no solid answers.
Dr. Paranassus is an alcohol-soaked wise man, who’s also a showman, touring with his rundown traveling “Imaginarium”—with the assistance of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); a hapless young man, Anton (Andrew Garfield, Lions for Lambs); and a surly dwarf, Percy (Verne Troyer). They play to small crowds of largely uninterested—and often abusive—patrons. Paranassus is frequently too drunk to do much of anything, but then there’s his mirror, which is the actual imaginarium that leads to the inner workings of his mind and the landscape of his ongoing battle with Mr. Nick. (It’s not a stretch to assume that the imaginarium is a peek into Gilliam’s own imagination.) Actually, describing it as a battle isn’t quite accurate. It’s more of a game or a contest—one not unlike the soul-collecting one between God and the devil in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), but with what is ultimately an intriguing twist.
Into this mix comes Tony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious figure found having been hanged from a bridge and rescued by Anton, Valentina and Percy. Tony’s past is unclear (though he’s clearly hiding something) and his motives even more so. He’s both more and other than he seems, which happens to fit nicely with Gilliam having his imaginarium scenes played (out of necessity due to Ledger’s death) by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell—and played in ways that fit their screen images. (I’ve no doubt that the scenes were rewritten to achieve this end, but it’s still a bit of brilliance born of necessity.)
What happens is best left to be seen rather than described, but I have no reservations in saying it’s a journey into the mind of Gilliam that’s well worth making. However, since it is Gilliam, don’t expect a journey without its share of leaps, bumps and digressions. Those go with the territory, but if you like that territory, it doesn’t get much better—and it helps that all the performers seem miraculously in tune with Gilliam’s vision. As a farewell to Heath Ledger, the film probably couldn’t be better, even if the fact that it is a farewell marks it all with an undercurrent of sadness—made all the more so by the first of the movie’s closing credits, but that too is a touch that seems just right. Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.