I have to admit that my expectations weren’t incredibly high going into The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Even though it was a Terry Gilliam film and would, more than likely, be completely awesome. Even though it had Tom Waits billed as the Devil. Even with the promise of Heath Ledger’s final performance, the replacement cast of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel, and Jude Law, I still doubted.
Shame on me.
Dr. Parnassus was an extremely enjoyable movie in a way that you don’t really hear about much anymore – whimsical. Darkly whimsical, sure, but most whimsy has a more-than-obvious twisted dark side. This flick puts both together to give you the sweet and the salty at the same time.
The plot revolves around Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and the slyly named Mr. Nick, aka, The Devil (Tom Waits) and their constant wagering with each other. The first of these wagers, a thousand years ago, resulted in a win for Dr. Parnassus and his subsequent gift of immortality. This, of course, leads in to an eternity of not-so-friendly competition between Dr. P and Mr. Nick. Dr. P is a compulsive gambler and Nick, of course, is the ultimate in temptation.
As the movie begins, we’re lead quickly to believe that Dr. P has made a deal with the devil involving his daughter, Valentina, played wonderfully full of teenage angst by relative newcomer Lily Cole.
This deal, in which the devil gets custody of Valentina at the stroke of midnight on her 16th Birthday, is thrown into contest by a side-wager: the first of the two betters to collect 5 souls wins. If Dr. P is able to collect 5 souls before the devil, he keeps Valentina.
This battle is played out through Dr. Parnassus’ gypsy-like travelling show which rolls around modern London drawn by four horses in a collapsible stage/rolling house which seems to be larger on the inside than it should be.
In his show, Dr. P goes into a trance which allows people to pass through a harmless-looking stage mirror and into the world of their own imagination (which, strangely, takes place inside Dr. P’s mind). While there, they are given a chance at their wildest fantasies. These fantasies, however, can be achieved in the difficult yet correct way of Dr. P, or the quick and easy way of Mr. Nick, whose domain seems to cut through the imaginarium (the world inside Dr. P’s head which, strangely, looks like the world inside Gilliam’s head due to some appropriately Monty Python style art) like a hard border (day into night, grasslands into badlands, that kind of thing).
When the customer (for lack of a better word) chooses their fate, it decides who has won their soul. Dr. P stands in for purity of heart while Mr. Nick stands in for quick fixes and earthly temptations.
Heath Ledger’s role in the film is that of an “amnesiac” transient whose life the small troupe of performers wind up saving. As a result, this sales-minded man is welcomed to the show as its main barker. His performance is done completely in the “real world” of the movie with the stand-in actors subbing for him in the green screen world of the imaginarium causing their substitutions to actually make a great deal of sense within the plot.
The trio of back-ups do nothing but add to Ledger’s original performance, as they seem to have made a great observation of the footage of Ledger’s performance in order to perform as if he were wearing them as make-up. This is more to the credit of the other actors rather than Heath Ledger, but it was nice to see these things fit seamlessly with the rest of the movie.
My favorite part of the movie was the fact that they’ve given more than just a cameo role to two character actors. One being, of course, the always awesome Tom Waits, who has been known to appear in some sort of twisted capacity in some movies, but only for a few brief seconds or lines. His turn as the playful and taunting Mr. Nick was absolutely fantastic and seemed tailor-made for his attitude and his always awesome I-gargle-every-morning-with-hydrocloric-acid, six-pack-a-day voice. You have to love it when the comic relief and the villain wind up being the same guy.
The other is Verne Troyer, who shows up in an actual speaking role which adds a fair amount to the plot. He’s not screaming “eeeeeeee” and aping Mike Myers through the whole flick, which is a huge step up for the tiny actor. He doesn’t do too bad of a job in his part, either, which surprised me.
All in all, this is a solid entry into director Terry Gilliam’s portfolio. Not necessarily his best work, but certainly a good one and one worth watching (if you can find it in its limited arthouse release). Definitely surreal and definitely fun, as you’ve come to expect from a Gilliam picture.
The last thing I’ll say is, though this was billed heavily in the press as Heath Ledger’s last movie, it is not overshadowed by such a stigma. It serves as an epitaph, the same way The Dark Knight does, of a great young actor who died before his time. This does not, in any way, take away from the movie being good. In other words, it’s not a pity watch for Ledger fans. This is a legit flick. Check it out if you can.
Bidula’s Last Word: 8/10
Keep fighting the good fight.
Down with Leno!