“Strange,” uttered one woman in the sparsely populated theater, rising from her seat during the ending credits of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam. Though it would be hard for anyone to argue with the word choice of her brilliantly concise review, I did not share the sense of disappointment her tone expressed.
While discussing the movie with a friend on the car ride home and trying to figure out what exactly had been happening in that movie for the past two hours, I reached two conclusions: 1. Trying to establish any sort of coherent understanding of the themes in and purpose for the plot of Doctor Parnassus was ultimately bound to be a fruitless endeavor.
2. I nonetheless enjoyed the cinematic adventure I had just experienced.
In the film, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) travels through a bleakly portrayed modern-day London in an ancient, rickety caravan. Traveling with him are two helping hands and his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Dr. Parnassus’ life has taken some interesting turns thanks to a few ill-advised deals with the devil, alias Mr. Nick, played wonderfully by Tom Waits.
The result of all these deals is that now Dr. Parnassus and his troupe must attempt to lure anyone they can into a magic mirror that transports them into fantastic worlds of their own imaginations. Each person’s journey through the mirror culminates in a morality play in which he or she chooses virtue or vice, represented by Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick respectively.
In the midst of all this comes Tony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious stranger whose presence seems destined to tip the scales one way or another in Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick’s endless cosmic wagers.
Doctor Parnassus was the last movie made by Heath Ledger before his tragic death. Since filming was far from complete when Ledger bowed out, Gilliam recruited a few A-listers –Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – to jointly complete Tony’s parts.
The transitions from each actor to the next are artfully executed. Depp gives the best performance of all the replacement Tonys, perhaps because the character seems to have been written as Ledger doing his best Depp impression. Law is a bit bland and struggles to hold his own in the company of more engaging actors, while Farrell rises to the challenge of bringing the film’s climactic scenes to life.
The rest of Doctor Parnassus is just as much a mixed bag as the performances of its stars. Visually, it’s a treat, contrasting the drab streets of London with the colorful CGI landscapes of the Imaginarium.
But the plot is far too convoluted and incoherent. Plenty of interesting concepts and themes are introduced throughout the movie; the problem is that Gilliam is never willing to stay with any of them long enough.
The central characters are also underdeveloped. But perhaps my biggest complaint is that there is no musical performance from Waits within a context that’s practically begging for such a scene. Instead, Gilliam gives us a chorus of British men singing in drag, a throwback to his Monty Python days.
This fantastic circus of a movie has no trouble keeping viewers guessing and drawing them into its imaginative world. What it struggles to do is keep them interested in this disorienting plot line that teases with moments of brilliance that never reach fulfillment.