Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Filled with striking images and terrific acting, Parnassus is that rare fantasy film where the strange and the unexpected mingle politely with delicate human emotion.

Terry Gilliam's 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

One of the many joys to be found at Austin’s Fantastic Fest is a series of “Secret Screenings” that occur throughout the program week, where films remain unannounced until moments before the lights go down. This past September we were treated to a diverse set of surprises that included The Men Who Stare at Goats, Robogeisha and A Serious Man. It was a real pleasure to discover Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnussus was one of them, but even more so that the film is a terrific return to form for the director. After dreary disappointments of clutter (The Brothers Grimm) and grim detachment (Tideland), the lovingly rendered Parnassus brings Gilliam back to a jovial dream-world that feels pleasantly familiar to some of his earlier films, and he excels at conveying such good-natured whimsy.

The film has been kept in the public eye for almost two years prior to its release due to the unfortunate death of Heath Ledger. Ledger’s final performance is the lynchpin of Parnassus, and his death does impact how the story plays out. But Gilliam did not allow Ledger’s absence to close down the show; he cleverly inserts three different actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) into fantasy sequences that ultimately make the film feel whole, and not at all awkward or strained. The film flows so seamlessly that it feels like it was always meant to be this way.

Aging Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) winds through the backstreets of London, opening his travelling theater for anyone who will watch. With his diminutive right-hand man Percy (Verne Troyer), assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) and lovely, coming-of-age daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), the good doctor manages to make just enough to scrape by. One day the troupe comes across a young man named Tony (Ledger), who appears to be either out of his mind, on the run, or perhaps both. Tony brings a much-needed burst of energy to the show, and soon is hawking the light-or-dark promises Parnassus makes possible through a seemingly worn-out prop on his fold-out stage. Tony’s impromptu performances are timely; Parnassus is also embroiled in a series of wagers with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a dapper devil who wants Valentina for his own and challenges the doctor to a gathering of souls to see who keeps her.

Gilliam has always made terrific casting choices with expert results: Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, Depp and Benicio del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys. In Parnassus he front-loads so much great acting that you almost lose sight of the surreal story being played out. Plummer, Troyer and Waits are real standouts here, despite the bigger names as the various incarnations of Tony. Waits, in particular, is a delight to watch. His aloof, grinding voice and huckster’s garb make for a wickedly ramblin’ gamblin’ man. He just happens to deal in eternal damnation.

As the wager moves forward, much time is spent in Dali-esque other-worlds, where temptation is offered by both parties — Nick with the easy, salacious offer, and various Tonys with more promising, but less fun, self-improvement. Or something like that. There are times the story doesn’t make clear what exactly is being offered to obtain the souls in question, or what happens to the physical bodies of those whose “bad” choice causes them to seemingly be destroyed in the dream-world. But the look of the landscapes are a pleasure to behold. Gilliam’s universe is one heaped with strange sights: a ship on the head of a giant, lizards in a tacky casino lounge, hovering monitors in a futuristic control room. The many realms found in Parnussus, if not conjured by the surreal dreamscapes of Dali, were at least inspired by some dark, Seussian vision.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is also a film that could easily be recommended for family viewing; the surreal elements are never too dark or too lurid, and the sympathetic portrayals of the theater company are sweetly endearing. Gilliam has managed to leave us with something delightful and wondrous, which is far more palatable than his recent efforts, or even dark successes like Fear and Loathing. Filled with striking images and terrific acting, Parnassus is that rare fantasy film where the strange and the unexpected mingle politely with delicate human emotion, yet no one element ever overwhelms the others.

Originally posted at Movie Geek Feed. Republished with permission.

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