Knowing the inside story of Terry Gilliam’s history of failed or flawed projects just makes his latest, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, all the more heartbreaking. Heath Ledger’s death during filming was yet another painful setback in a career full of them, but Gilliam worked around it, bringing in a plot device that lets Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law sub in for Ledger in a series of fantasy sequences. That gimmick works passably well, though in their CGI-heavy imagination-land scenes, all three actors seem hammy and flailing, with an understandable lack of connection to the character they’re playing. The real tragedy is in the film’s plot, which seems like a mighty personal story for director and co-writer Gilliam.
Christopher Plummer stars as Doctor Parnassus, an aging, drunken mountebank traveling from town to town in a rickety cart with his daughter (Lily Cole) and two costumed assistants; in each new place, he offers the locals entrance to a magical world shaped by his imagination, where they face a moral choice for enlightenment or depravity, greed or sacrifice, good or evil. Problem is, in this debased age, most people aren’t even interested in the choice; they laughingly dismiss him and his tatty box of threadbare wonders. That changes when Plummer and his retinue meet Ledger, who for his own reasons attempts to help modernize their routine and make them accessible to the contemporary world, which gives Plummer a leg up on a longstanding rivalry with the devil, as played by a capering Tom Waits.
There’s a lot of Gilliam in Plummer’s tragically ineffectual character, a man with a ramshackle aesthetic and a hopelessly square message about the magical powers of imagination. Gilliam has been pushing this aesthetic and message since his Monty Python movie days, and Imaginarium is yet another film in the same vein, with a smart concept, gorgeous cinematography, some terrific performances (particularly from the ever-reliable Waits) and tons of energy, but undisciplined execution and a sloppy storyline. Ledger in particular improvised a lot of dialogue, and it shows in his babbling, frantic performance. But the garish framework aside, it’s unquestionably a Gilliam project, with vast ambition and humor carrying it past the weak points, and an air of tragic majesty that comes as much from Gilliam’s career as from anything specific here. In a real sort of way, Gilliam is Parnassus, carrying his tatterdemalion show forward from year to year and trying to get people to pay attention, and the mingled sense of bitterness and hope in his story makes this whole crazed fantasy into something far more real.