Former Monty Python ensemble actor/comedian Terry Gilliam has a directorial resume full of eccentric characters and eclectic visual motifs. “Brazil,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” are about as odd as anything by Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
Even the Python films he directed had his undeniably mad vision stamped over the troupe’s already overt lunacy – “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” did not really need periodic animated sequences, for example, but in retrospect, it would feel wrong without them.
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” was already marked before its release – Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) died during its filming. Mr. Gilliam was forced to create a third-wall-shattering device during production that would allow Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to complete Mr. Ledger’s performance. The result is a quirk that works to some degree successfully within the confines of a Terry Gilliam film (particularly as the replacements are all quality actors), but ultimately there is a void – the depth to which Mr. Ledger could have taken his mysterious Tony is palpably missing.
The film follows the travels of a motley crew of street performers who hope to entertain and enlighten through the use of a mirror that allows anyone who walks through it to literally walk through their wildest or darkest imaginations. The juxtaposition of seeing a 19th-century stage show, essentially a horse-drawn wagon, hit the parking lots, amusement parks and malls of modern-day England is amusing.
The costumed, mask-wearing and made-up group of nomads consists of Christopher Plummer (“The Insider”) as the eternal Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as his teenage daughter Valentina, Andrew Garfield as Anton – a young boy with a crush on blossoming Valentina – and Verne Troyer (“Mini-Me” from the “Austin Powers” sequels) as Percy, a dwarf with a quick wit.
Behind the curtain, as it were, Dr. P. and Mr. Nick, a.k.a. the devil (musician Tom Waits is a scene-stealer as a mischievous Beelzebub), wage a war for souls.
“We don’t play,” says Dr. Parnassus. “What we do here is deadly serious.”
It is revealed that the centuries-old rivalry has spawned a wager in which Dr. P. must give Valentina, upon her 16th birthday, to Mr. Nick, but the dark one
decides on a new bet – the first one to claim five souls wins the girl.
Enter Tony (Mr. Ledger), an amnesiac first encountered hanging from a rope beneath a bridge, apparently dead. Dr. P. fears that Tony might have been sent by Mr. Nick to turn the tide against him, but after Tony starts attracting newer, better customers to the Imaginarium, and the money starts coming in, Dr. P. soon relents.
While watching the film, the viewer can not escape the recognition that these are actors acting, that one of the actors is missing from its completion and that this London is too bizarre to seem like anything approaching reality.
However, long after “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” has ended, one finds oneself thinking of the film – of Dr. P. and Valentina’s father/daughter relationship, of the depths to which one character sinks due to vanity and of the fact that the devil does not force anyone to choose evil.
The film is very dark and will demand consideration for a long time, as intended. Run time: 2 hr 3 min