From “Time Bandits” in 1981 to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998, every movie Terry Gilliam made was marked by visual invention and a wickedly dark sense of humor that made him one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers. Unfortunately, since “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” famously collapsed in 2000, Gilliam has not made a movie that holds up with his previous work … until now.
“The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is perhaps most famous for being the movie Heath Ledger was working on when he died, and the curiosity over how or if they could finish the film has driven much interest in it. Thankfully, they’ve found a way to finish his scenes in a manner that still feels organic to the movie’s logic.
This film is about a supposedly 1,000-year-old man with mystical powers named Dr. Parnassus, his teenage daughter, the young man they took in who has fallen in love with her, and their diminutive partner who has journeyed with the doctor for much of their lives.
These four travel out of a converted tour bus, setting up their stage show to help people potentially gain enlightenment by passing through a mirror into the Imaginarium, a place constructed from the details of their own own imagination via the mind-reading abilities of the entranced Parnassus.
If more than one person enters at the same time, the person who is mentally stronger can end up driving the unfolding events. While inside, details such as physical appearance of themselves or others can be altered based on the imagination of the person in control. It is through this device that Ledger’s character’s physical and vocal features are changed. Through his three separate trips inside controlled by three separate people, his features are altered to those of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell, respectively.
Despite being noble in intent, there is also a dark side to the Imaginarium, as once inside the visitor inevitably must make a choice. The choice varies per person, but it essentially will mean exiting the Imaginarium with their soul intact, feeling renewed and invigorated, or having their soul and life taken by the devil, known here as Mr. Nick and played by Tom Waits.
Mr. Nick and Dr. Parnassus are actually ancient rivals, but Parnassus is indebted to him and when he comes a few days early to collect from an unspeakable bargain, things look bleak until a morbid encounter with a stranger in need of aid (Ledger) leads to some radical changes.
While the visual splendor of the imagined worlds the characters travel through can’t rival what Gilliam showed us with “Time Bandits” or “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” the special effects are more than suitable, with some nice touches that even recall Gilliam’s animated work with Monty Python.
The movie is rich with some great ideas and dark humor that would fit right in with Gilliam’s first films, which makes sense considering the screenplay was written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown who previously collaborated together on “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchasen.”
Also of note is how Gilliam continues his trend of making “real life” extremely dirty, ugly, and all-around unpleasant. From “Jabberwocky” through “Tideland,” nearly all of Gilliam’s films depicted a dingy reality marked by layers of filth. Its no wonder his characters want to escape to bright and colorful fantasy worlds.
My biggest criticism of this film is that the plot feels a bit muddled. Even when the stakes are made clear, they still somehow don’t feel that real. The Eastern mysticism that grants the doctor his powers also feels a bit underdeveloped as well.
Thankfully, what unfolds is consistently interesting and those who stick with it will find a film with enough layers and depth and detail to warrant repeat viewings. It’s good to have Gilliam back. “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is definitely worth stepping through.