Terry Gilliam's latest cinematic sideshow is biography as metaphor, an exhilarating, deranged and indulgent mess of a movie that giddily reflects both the filmmaker's strengths and weaknesses. For anyone who knows Gilliam's work (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, etc.), it'll come as no surprise that his movie is filled with delightfully acid-laced visuals, vaudevillian zaniness, thematic musings on the power of imagination, and, of course, at least one character who's below normal height.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is also a melancholy swansong for actor Heath Ledger, who died halfway through the production. Forced to soldier on, Gilliam deftly split Ledger's role into four personas and recruited Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to assist. It's actually an easy conceit to swallow since Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown's fantastical story is so haphazardly scripted the change has little narrative impact.
In its meandering and flashback-filled first act we meet the immortal but penniless Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a vagabond who wanders London with his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) and dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer) performing in a traveling theater-show. A thousand years ago the good doctor (then a monk) made a series of bets with the Devil, Mr. Nick (a wonderfully sleazy Tom Waits), earning him eternal life. The only catch was that the bowler-hatted Beelzebub would get his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) once she turned 16. With her birthday quickly drawing near, Parnassus makes another desperate wager: A race to collect five souls. You see, the Imaginarium is a portal into the doctor's mind, where dreams struggle against nightmares, and souls can find either profound enlightenment or eternal damnation.
The story finally kicks in with the arrival of Tony (Ledger), a seemingly resurrected amnesiac with the verbal patter of a con man. Tony joins Parnassus' troupe, using his talents to pull in willing souls. But when his own troubled past calls he jumps into the Imaginarium, where he becomes Depp then Law and, eventually, Farrell. Unfortunately, no matter which persona Tony adopts, in the end he's forced to pay the piper.
Doctor Parnassus is an artist's diary of sorts, a collection of ideas missing a narrative framework, as if Gilliam were struggling to make sense of his career. And it's clear that the filmmaker sees himself as the exhausted Parnassus, a man filled with sad dignity, still hoping to amaze audiences with his elaborate fantasies but fearful that no one's paying attention anymore.
Fans will recognize the clever patchwork quilt of references to Gilliam's past work, from a Monty Python-style song-and-dance number (featuring cross-dressing cops) to Troyer making sarcastic allusions to Time Bandits. "What would I do without you," sighs Parnassus throughout the film. Troyer's response is always the same: "Get a midget."
But no matter how personal Doctor Parnassus is supposed to be, Gilliam can't help but overindulge his fetishes, forgetting that general audiences are what he needs to keep his own Imaginarium spinning. Instead of a tight, fully developed story and characters we care about, he takes a connect-the-dots approach to his narrative, rendering it chaotically episodic. All the elements are there for a captivating and compelling drama, but Gilliam seems unable or unwilling to craft his story the way he crafts his art direction. And as wonderfully outlandish as his visuals are, he never finds the wonder of his earlier work.
Strangely, Doctor Parnassus ends on an incongruous note, one that seems to contradict all the values Gilliam holds dear. Peering in the window of a restaurant, Parnassus watches his daughter, happily married with a princess of a little girl. It's a crushingly conventional depiction of domestic bliss that seems to hold up '50s-era conformity as an ideal for happiness. Could it be that the director's storied disappointments have led him to bitterly embrace an ordinary life?
Say it isn't so, Terry. Even your failures are more interesting than most filmmakers' successes.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.