Terry Gilliam’s latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), is a difficult film to evaluate. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the film contains more than the usual quota of stunning images and inspired sequences. However, like the films by Kubrick and Welles, Gilliam’s is a film that cannot escape the shadow of its production history. As most readers are no doubt aware, Parnassus stands as the last film featuring the talents of the late Heath Ledger. Yet, Ledger’s death occurred before the film was finished shooting and Gilliam was forced to shut down production to contemplate a means of constructing a film without one of his key personnel. Eventually, Gilliam settled on re-casting the part with Ledger’s friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) in his role over expensive CGI solutions. Unfortunately, while it was the most cost effective and arguably the most tasteful creative choice Gilliam could have made, the solution costs the film dearly.
The film begins in contemporary London, as a horse-drawn stage show makes its way through a district littered with pubs and clubs. The curtain raises, as slight of hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield) introduces the “vertically challenged” Percy (Verne Troyer), Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), and his beautiful daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). The troupe’s show stands as a way of drawing a crowd to the main attraction, Doctor Parnassus’s magical mirror that, upon entry, will transport the viewer into a land driven by their imagination. Unfortunately, in today’s current cultural environment, people aren’t interested in flights of the imagination. Business is down; the troupe is starving and continually needs to evade the police, who cynically interpret the stage show as a means of facilitating rape or pedophilia.
Moreover, even if a viewer makes it through the mirror, they are faced with a moral choice that drives the ecology of this fantastic world. The viewer must either choose the path to righteousness, marked by Parnassus’s indulgence of the mind, or can settle on a path marked by sin (I feel like I’m playing Bioshock all over again). The path of sin has been winning out, thanks to the talents of the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), whom Parnassus once made a deal with. Long ago, Parnassus was given the gift of immortality and a wife with the harsh price of his daughter’s soul. Now, the devil has come to collect his prize but not before striking a new bet with Parnassus: the first person to collect five souls will win Valentina. Parnassus accepts the new wager when the troupe discovers a stranger dangling from a noose and save his life. They discover that the man, whose name is Tony (Ledger), has memory loss due to his trauma but feels indebted to the troupe for their actions. Tony convinces Parnassus that he must modernize the act in order to appeal to a contemporary audience and, on the eve of Valentina’s 16th birthday, the troupe sets out to win the wager and Parnassus’s daughter along with it.
Obviously, this plot synopsis is quite confusing, as is the film. We’re never quite sure of the rules of the wager (I’m still not 100 percent sure who the fifth soul was), nor is it clear what metaphysical rules the imaginarium lives by. For instance, if someone dies in the imaginarium, does his or her physical body die along with it? The film gives us conflicting accounts and, if death were possible, the entire premise seems odd. Who would imagine their own death? If you were falling down a crevice in the imaginarium and the world changed according to your wishes, why not imagine yourself a parachute? While one could interpret this narrative murkiness as a symptom of having to construct a film around the void left by Ledger, I would tend to argue that it falls in line with Gilliam’s screenwriting track record. Gilliam, like Tim Burton, is undoubtedly a great visual mind but can often lose focus in film form. His best films, 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), were written either by other screenwriters or, in the case of the latter, based upon a previously published work. While Brazil (1985) has many loving admirers, I am not among them. I respect it, but find it an ultimately inspired but bloated film. Gilliam wrote Parnassus with his Brazil co-writer, Charles McKeown, and the uneven and ambiguous plotting force the film off the rails often.
My second criticism of the film can be attributed to the loss of Ledger. Quite simply, the character of Tony never comes together, no matter how many actors Gilliam puts in the role. None of the cameo actors seem to have a firm grasp of the character, who is the most morally complex in the film. When Tony’s character goes through a big third-act reveal, he’s played by Colin Farrell, who does a valiant job but his performance style is so different from Ledger’s that it’s hard to make heads or tails out of the characterization. If only Ledger had completed those final scenes, there might have been a connection with the character. Admittedly, it’s a bittersweet treat to see Heath on the screen one last time but this film stands as a entertaining but ultimately minor film by most of the talent involved.
That is, except for Tom Waits, without a doubt my favorite part of Parnassus. Waits’s talent as a musician is undeniable but, sadly, his acting resume is too short. His performances in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986) and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) were amazingly strong. Hell, he even made Tony Scott’s Domino (2005) watchable (and that film featured the infamous nude scene with Keira Knightley!). Here, Waits completely relishes in his role as Satan, making full use of his hound dog voice to croon out innuendos to Parnassus’s daughter (“Sweet as a peach and only sixteen!”), his penciled mustache, a fiery top hat and excellent cigarette holder. Alas, if only Gilliam had made The Imaginarium of Mr. Nick.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.