With Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits. Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking. 122 minutes.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is a giddy fantasy that preserves the final screen performance by the late Heath Ledger, and marks a welcome return to form for director Terry Gilliam who has had a rocky time as a filmmaker over the last decade. If it’s not quite “Brazil” or “The Fisher King,” his latest is reminiscent of his earlier films like “Time Bandits” and “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.” Longtime fans who wondered if Gilliam had simply run out of steam should have a grand time.
The focus is Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) who puts on a
traveling magic show which transports people to a world where each faces the choice of a lifetime. Choose wisely and be transformed. Choose badly and you might not come back. One night he and his troupe, including his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), discover man hanging off a bridge. They rescue him and the recovering Tony (Heath Ledger) becomes part of the show.
The plot involves a long standing bet between Nick (Tom Waits), who is the Devil incarnate, and Parnassus. Parnassus bargained for immortality but as part of the deal Valentina will be claimed by Nick when she comes of age. Now a new bet is set forth, with the first to get the required number of souls choosing good or evil winning Valentina.
Key to this is Tony, who is either the savior Parnassus needs or a terrible person running away from his own misdeeds. Who Tony really is becomes the mystery the film needs to solve. Unfortunately for all concerned, Ledger’s tragic death came in the middle of production and it looked like the film would never be completed. However Gilliam and his screenwriting collaborator Charles McKeown (with whom he did “Munchausen”) came up with a way to revise the script so they could tell the story with the footage they had, and the part of Tony could be taken over by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Without giving too much away, it involves the magical alternate world the customers are sent to, where everything – including Tony’s identity – is fluid.
There are some nice performances here from Plummer, Ledger and Verne Troyer, as a member of the troupe. However, the standout is Tom Waits, who allows the gambling with Parnassus to go on not because he wants to trick him but because he’s having too much fun to simply claim victory and walk away. This is a devil who is bored and looking for amusement, with wise, old Parnassus making it worth his while.
As with most Gilliam films, this is a movie with plenty of inventive imagery (as befits the man who first came to fame doing animation for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) and a somewhat loose narrative. Somehow he manages to pull it all together, making this a fairy tale for grown ups. “The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus” won’t please everyone, but those who want to be challenged by something different will find this a nice change from off the shelf Hollywood fare.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.