I've been waiting for the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for a few years now and it was such a great surprise to find it was playing at my local theater yesterday. I'm a devoted fan of Terry Gilliam, who is a master at weaving fantastic tales and taking his viewers on other-worldly journeys. You'd expect nothing less out of every single one of his films, from the child-like Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the darker yet still innocent Tideland. Imaginarium's trailer seemed to promise no different. Added to this was the bittersweet delight of watching the gone-too-soon Heath Ledger's final performance, cut short by his untimely death, and only completed thanks to Gilliam's directorial creativity and the short but on spot performances of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell.
(The spoilers begin here, I'm afraid. If you don't mind having information about the first half of the film, read on.)
The trailer for Imaginarium doesn't give the viewer much except that you know it will look beautiful. From the get go, you realize it's a very different tale from what you might first expect. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is not only a magical old man, but rather an unhappy drunk who made a bargain with the devil to gain immortality. He travels with his daughter Valentina (played by the lovely, up and coming talent Lily Cole), a quick witted little person named Percy (Verne Troyer), and loyal underdog Anton (Andrew Garfield). Parnassus, we later discover, is completely disheveled as the clock ticks closer to Valentina's 16th birthday, the age at which he must turn her over to the devil (played marvelously by Tom Waits). Meanwhile, Valentina's dreams of escaping the life of a traveling street performer are interrupted when the group discover a man (whose name we later find is Tony, and who was played by the late Heath Ledger) hanging from a rope underneath a bridge. The stranger turns out to be a man of many faces and he joins the performers, enchanting ladies to come through Doctor Parnassus' mirror, and essentially, in to Parnassus' very imagination. Without giving too much away, the rest of the film follows the ongoing wagering between Parnassus and Devil, the slow discovery of who Tony really is, Anton's ceaseless devotion to Valentina and her equally unshakable devotion to Tony, and occasional visits in to the beautifully bizarre Imaginarium.
There are a lot of interesting undertones involved in the film. For one, Parnassus was originally part of a group of individuals who tell the story of the universe. Without people to tell the story, the universe would cease to exist. The devil attempts to prove him wrong, but fails because Parnassus realizes that no matter what, someone is always telling a story. This was probably my favorite sentiment in the film, something I think any writer could have a soft spot for. Technically, this scene didn't serve much purpose except to find a way to introduce Parnassus, but I love that Gilliam included it (although I would love to see him follow up on that idea in a separate film.) There is also the battle between flawed-but-good and evil (Parnassus versus the Devil.) Parnassus has incredible powers, but he doesn't want to rule the world. As Percy so eloquently puts it, "he wants the world to rule itself." What a fabulous way to look at and interpret religion/belief. In this world, it's almost as if god is a lonely alcoholic who just wants people to be happy and wants to be happy himself. Heaven lies within his mind and all who enter find their own version of paradise to submit to. Parnassus and the Devil vie for souls and each has their own technique at fooling/enchanting people to submit. But with Parnassus, there is no guilt to be good, to do right, but rather to just be happy. He is flawed as are the souls he takes, but in this world there is nothing "wrong" with that. At the same time, the Devil, who is quite the gambler, doesn't necessarily want to win but just wants to keep the game going. It's no fun if you're going to win all the time and so he presses on wager after wager. Brilliant.
The film itself is beautifully shot, and even with the use of CGI (which I normally can't stand), it actually still worked. It appears that Gilliam's personal touch went in to all of the shots, and he must have had an amazing art direction department to get it all just right. There's definitely some bits of Monty Python that creep out (some of the visuals, as well as the bizarre scene with the dancing male cops dressed in skirts, pantyhose, and heels) which may have seemed out of place if you weren't familiar with Monty Python. Lily Cole is definitely going places, she has a genuine charisma that complements her unusual look. Andrew Garfield, another up and comer, also delivers a wonderful performance. Sure, you can kind of hate him at certain points for seeming to be the immature friend who doesn't get a clue, but you then realize his heart is in the right place and he rises from underdog status before the credits roll. Waits portrayal of the sly, squinty-eyed, thinly moustached Devil steals every scene he's in. Overall, i'd say this was another Gilliam-esque triumph.
One final thing worth noting: If you never fell in love with Heath Ledger in his previous roles, guaranteed you will love him here. It makes me wonder if he was as enchanting in real life as he was in this film. Charming for the most part and then somewhat villainous in others, it's just a shame he won't get to see it, and even more of a shame that we'll never get to see him do it up this way again.