Gilliam's Mad 'Doctor' Spins An Elusive Tale

W Jude Law In The Imaginarium i i

Through The Looking Glass: Surreal visuals, a stream-of-consciousness plot and three (yes three, including Jude Law, above) actors playing fantasyland alter egos for the late Heath Ledger: Doctor Parnassus isn't easy to follow, but it's fun to look at. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
W Jude Law In The Imaginarium

Through The Looking Glass: Surreal visuals, a stream-of-consciousness plot and three (yes three, including Jude Law, above) actors playing fantasyland alter egos for the late Heath Ledger: Doctor Parnassus isn't easy to follow, but it's fun to look at.

Sony Pictures Classics

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

  • Director: Terry Gilliam
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Running Time: 132 minutes

Rated PG-13: Earthly violence and unworldly nightmares

With: Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits

Meet Doctor Parnassus, a well-meaning but hopelessly unreliable spinner of dreams. In other words, meet Terry Gilliam.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn't quite the spiritual autobiography of Gilliam, the Minnesota-born Monty Python animator whose films include Brazil and 12 Monkeys. That would be too straightforward, and Gilliam's movies are never straightforward.

Eye-teasing, mind-tickling but narratively frustrating, Imaginarium combines elements of Faust and Kundun, Monty Python's Flying Circus and the Vatican Bank scandal. For added poignance, it's the final movie of Heath Ledger, who died before filming was completed. (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all stand in for him.)

Although it ends in Canada — where much of it was shot — the film transpires primarily in one of two places: London or the mind. And even that distinction isn't a simple one. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his troupe steer a tottering, horse-drawn theater through a London that's clearly contemporary. Yet when they set up their stage for a performance, they're usually at a site that evokes the Victorian era. (The locations include Borough Market, Tower Bridge and Leadenhall Market.) A former Himalayan monk, Parnassus enters a trance, whose aura enables brave or foolish bystanders to walk through a mirror and into their own imaginations. This experience can be gratifying, but not for everyone who tries it.

The dotty doc has three afflictions: alcohol, gambling and the devil. The latter, known here as Mr. Nick, once made a bet and won a big prize: the soul of Parnassus' daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole, who has the Botticelli look Gilliam favors). Nick (an oily Tom Waits) expects to collect on Valentina's 16th birthday, which is just days away.

The doc's cranky 3-foot-high assistant, Percy (Verne Troyer), knows about this fateful debt. But Valentina and the troupe's barker, Anton (Boy A's Andrew Garfield), have not been informed. Anton loves Valentina and is worried about competition from the new guy (Ledger, also oily). He's a mysterious fugitive who claims to have lost his memory; Valentina decides to call him George.

Parnassus i i

Christopher Plummer plays Parnassus, a doddering dreamer, itinerant impresario and former monk — who just happens to have a magic mirror that can bring his audiences' fancies to life. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
Parnassus

Christopher Plummer plays Parnassus, a doddering dreamer, itinerant impresario and former monk — who just happens to have a magic mirror that can bring his audiences' fancies to life.

Sony Pictures Classics
Ledger and Cole i i

Tony (Heath Ledger) woos Doctor Parnassus' daughter, the much-coveted Valentina (Lily Cole) — whose soul is in peril, now that the devil means to collect his due. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
Ledger and Cole

Tony (Heath Ledger) woos Doctor Parnassus' daughter, the much-coveted Valentina (Lily Cole) — whose soul is in peril, now that the devil means to collect his due.

Sony Pictures Classics

His arrival foreshadowed by a Tarot card, the Hanged Man, George is found dangling under Blackfriars Bridge. (That's where Vatican banker Roberto Calvi was discovered.) But George, whose real name is Tony, is the sort of fast-talking, well-prepared hustler who can survive an execution. He joins the troupe in an attempt to elude Russian gangsters.

George tempts a newly upscale clientele through the mirror. What follows are three fantasy sequences, filmed after Ledger's death, in which George is played alternately by Depp, Law or Farrell. The imagery ranges from beguiling to ominous to goofy: In one vignette, cops in drag perform a chorus-girl routine that's pure Python.

When cloistered, Parnassus explains, he was one of the monks who continually recited the story that keeps the universe going. This is ironic, since Imaginarium suffers from the director's characteristic disinterest in keeping a tale on track. Scripted by Charles McKeown (who co-wrote Brazil) and Gilliam, the movie has too many plots and too little momentum.

The director has focused stories better in other films, notably Time Bandits and the underrated Tideland, which benefit from a single protagonist and a child's-eye viewpoint. But Imaginarium piles up complications, and doesn't endow any of them with much emotional kick.

Visually, however, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is robust. It doesn't seem to matter who triumphs in the simultaneous struggles between Parnassus and Nick, and Anton and George. But in Gilliam's latest bout between cramped, grungy reality and open, crystalline fantasy, there's a winner worth celebrating.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.