Or rather, the Imaginarium of Dr. Gilliam.
A carnival attraction of sorts comes to town, a rickety, outsize movable stage drawn by horses, designed according to the artistic sensibilities of another era. It's the sort of thing that would have pulled into Burning Man, if it had existed a century ago. A story-telling travelling magician, Dr. Parnassus, heads the small company on board. The good doctor has been blessed or cursed with eternal life, and he wants to bring his peculiar wisdom to the people, one at a time. Drunks stumbling home from pubs and children cruising the fairgrounds alike are invited to pass through Parnassus's magic mirror. It reflects, of course; used properly, they find within only what they bring to it.
The good doctor faces many complications. The present age doesn't much like him, and even his own staff sometimes break the rules that govern the mirror's use. His ongoing wagers with the devil, of course, complicate his life and work tremendously.
And then there's the matter of Tony, a mysterious man Parnassus and his company find hanging beneath a bridge.
Gilliam's film has no shortage of crazed and spectacular visuals. He has always had his own aesthetic, bizarre bricolage of our culture's history. Even here, where he raids his own past (a number of the images recall cut-out animation from his Flying Circus days), he remains original. Few directors can blend biting satire with eyeball-kicking, and some scenes in the movie equal the kind of inspired lunacy that characterized his work with the Pythons.
The film combines traditional and CGI effects. Given that these recreate dreamworlds, it's difficult to criticize them. Even when they seem askew (the shattered glass, for example), I suspect they look as the director intended. Certainly, Gilliam let loose with CGI proves more interesting than George Lucas. I have to wonder what he would have done with The Lord of the Rings; I fear what he could accomplish with Avatar's budget.
Many of the film's odd turns eventually make sense. Other questions remain unanswered, and the film is weaker for it. Motivations are not always clear. Given that we're in some version of the real world, how does Parnassus remain unknown to the broader public? What does it mean to give one's soul to Dr. Parnassus? The film features too much insane sensibility and not enough storytelling sense.
A number of fine performances buttress the tale, including Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits as Parnassus and the devil. Young Lily Cole does fine opposite these seasoned performers; Andrew Garfield is good, though not great. Verne Troyer does a fair job with some of the script's wittier lines. Most of the publicity and attention have gone, however, to the actors playing Tony. Certainly, one suspects they were the reason for the trendy teens in attendance.
People will remember the Joker as Heath Ledger's last role, but he makes his final appearance in this film as Tony. Thanks to the wonders of the Imaginarium, Johnny Depp and and Jude Law also get to play the part. It's a tribute to all of them that this actually works, and causes surprisingly little confusion.1
This is a good thing, since Imaginarium proves confusing enough.
I'm a fan of Terry Gilliam. I like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, and I love Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Other Gilliam experiments have been less successful. This one works in places, but he's juggling too many ideas. It's a dazzling feat, but the Imaginarium never achieves its potential.
Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus
Andrew Garfield as Anton
Lily Cole as the Valentina
Verne Troyer as Percy
Heath Ledger as Tony
Johnny Depp as Tony
Jude Law as Tony
Tom Waits as Mr. Nick
1. Jet-Poop reminds me that Colin Farrell also (briefly) plays Tony. Officially, he's listed as a stunt double.