DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam
PLOT: A 1000 year-old mystic enlists the help of a seedy amnesiac to save his daughter, whose life he exchanged for eternal youth, from the clutches of the Devil.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a return to extreme fantasy for Terry Gilliam, who hasn’t delved so deep into the realm of untethered imagination since The Adventures of Baron Muchausen. It is a madcap vaudevillian escapade that is anything but ordinary, a rekindling of the fires of whimsy in modern cinema that has not been lit in some time. Gilliam conjures a tale that comes from the divine and the pedestrian, fills it with colorful, albeit thin, characters, and lets the magic happen as the elements coalesce into a Victorian sideshow of epic proportions.
COMMENTS: Set over a thousand years of the titular character’s life (although it’s mostly set in modern day England), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical meditation on choices: good ones, bad ones, the weight-laden overabundance of decisions we all face at some point, and the demeaning lack of options we also experience. From literal metaphors involving people choosing their destinies in a realm of imagination to the figurative posturings of the opposition between that which is right and that which is merely easy, director Terry Gilliam muses in this film on the ages-old dilemma of free will and how these characters will go about using it.
But forget about that! What everyone wants to know is how well they shoe-horned in all of Heath Ledger’s stand-ins during post-production! As you’re well aware, I’m sure, this is the final performance of the late, great Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died during the production of this feature, leaving his role, that of the amnesiac Tony, woefully incomplete. Gilliam, being ever the professional, and no stranger to ill circumstances befalling his films, decided to soldier on and finish the film with various other leading men filling in for Ledger in the remaining scenes.
How is such a thing possible?! Well, luckily for Gilliam, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or as I’ll soon be calling it for brevity’s sake, TIoDP, is heavy on the fantasy, so Gilliam comes up with a fair explanation for the sudden change of face and build of our main character. TIoDP is about a 1000 year long rivalry between the devil and Doctor Parnassus, a decrepit old man who runs a nasty vaudeville side show with a little person, a wispy teenage runaway assistant, and his own hot daughter, where he exhibits his ability to take people into the world of imagination. Throughout the years he and the devil have made wagers, and they have each outwitted each other more than once. But Parnassus ended up losing the last bet, and now when his hot daughter turns 16, which will be very soon, he will be forced to relinquish her to Satan. It’s a terrifying reality for him, and in these last few days before her 16th birthday, he grows desperate and morose. But, as fate would have it, two extreme coincidences happen within minutes of each other. First, the devil shows up completely unannounced with one more bargain for the soul of the hot daughter—the first one to seduce five souls into putting their faith in him wins. Almost immediately following this extraordinary stroke of luck, Parnassus’s show encounters a nearly dead man strung up by the neck named Tony, a real charmer with no memory of his past. He has the ability to charm anyone into doing anything, it seems, and he appears to be the blessing that Parnassus needs to win this wager. But this man is not all that he seems, and neither the devil or Parnassus can truly see the heart of this strange ne’er-do-well or the role he will play in their wager.
This is a good film, but nowhere near Gilliam’s dizzying past heights. TIoDP has a problem with tone in that it can’t take itself seriously for very long. To be honest, I was never sure whether I was supposed to take anything seriously, when Verne Troyer is the wise-but-wisecracking second-in-command to Parnassus and the devil is Tom “Gravel Throat” Waits! There are moments here when the forces at work seem sinister and malicious, and Satan’s wager really means a lot to him, and then the next minute, WHAM!, a line of police officers starts can-canning a la Magical Mystery Tour in a whimsical dream world! It makes for a weird experience, to be sure, but the results feel mixed.
Gilliam’s fancy of the occult, the wonders of magic, and imagination break no new ground with his fans, but anyone new to his unique vision will be surprised by what they find. This is a director obsessed with fanciful imagery, and TIoDP is a film fueled by the bizarre, the fantastic, and the slightly macabre. This too, feels bittersweet, but one cannot deny this film’s ability to stick in your head. Two images stick in my mind very vividly; one scene where Parnassus falls from the sky alone in the desert of his imagination, where a giant thumb tack, as big as a mountain, barely avoids skewering him, and another scene where Parnassus’s hot daughter (played by apple-faced model Lily Cole) and charming Tony act an entire scene with what appears to be a freshly dead chicken in their hands. One scene evokes some mental stimulation from me, making my brain work a bit, while the other makes me want to wash my hands more thoroughly.
It’s definitely a very good final performance for Ledger, but not nearly as iconic as his take on The Joker in The Dark Knight, the role for which he will be remembered. This is a much more subtle, mannered performance that is typical of all Gilliam heroes or antiheroes. It is a performance that will be recalled for its humor and its clumsy, casual tone, a tone that invites you in and makes you comfortable in the grandiose nature of the film, much like the smile of the charming Tony. Ledger is warm and reeks of cheap perfume and cheaper drinks, his charisma springing forth from a place where the bars stay open after 2:00 AM and the streets are filled with cocked necks and bitten lips. Ledger finished all the scenes in the real world, but when the scenes involving the world of imagination are involved, he is replaced by the likes of Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law (which easily explains away the character’s sudden lack of Ledger-ness. Clever!) Their performances are admirable, and the reasons they stepped in to complete the movie are noble indeed, but this is nobody’s real time to shine. In the face of Ledger’s Tony, these three leading men wither. In order of appearance, Depp gets a B-, Jude Law gets a slap on the wrist and a D, and Colin Farrell skates by with a C-.
This movie as a whole, however, has a lot of heart, character, and, most importantly, imagination! TIoDP is a terribly unique vision, and while it isn’t Gilliam’s best film, it has more than enough remarkable qualities to put it into this List. A good friend of mine once said about this list of the 366 weirdest movies, “The weirder it is, the less it has to be jaw-droppingly good,” and although my jaw remains planted firmly on my skull, the feet of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are nowhere near the tame earth of Hollywood, and that is a testament to both Terry Gilliam’s inventiveness as a director, and Heath Ledger’s insight as an actor. And a testament to the weirdness of a mountain-sized thumb tack.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Fantasmagorical is the word that comes to mind, this lavishly bizarre and gloriously ramshackle film from Terry Gilliam, with its Victoriana design elements jutting into contempo London and the psychedelic world of Dr Parnassus’ mind… Dr Parnassus is the kind of film that a hard nosed cynic may dismiss as balderdash, but for a flight of imaginative fancy, the film is pretty well unparalleled, with breathtaking sequences that take place on the other side of the travelling show’s silver mirror.”–Andrew Urban, Urban Cinefile