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Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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There are few directors as elusive and difficult to evaluate as Terry Gilliam. His newest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is a unique curiosity: not only is it quintessential Gilliam, but it's also the final film we will see Heath Ledger starring in, and this makes it seem haunted, in a certain way, by the ill-fated young actor's presence. Like most of Gilliam's work, it's not for everyone. However, for its ideal audience, its mysterious appeal will be abundant and unforgettable.

If you're familiar with Gilliam's previous films — especially his wilder offerings, like Brazil and The Adventures of the Baron Munchausen — you'll know his habit of directing carnivals, rather than movies in the traditional sense. Imaginarium is deeply affected by this syndrome, and bears a significant resemblance to Baron Munchausen. The visuals are explosive and grotesque, a representative case of what happens when you give money and computers to a guy with no inhibitions; the characters are the dream-specters of a child just back from the circus. The plot makes sense occasionally, but generally doesn't gel, and it teems with objects and characters who we never quite get a handle on. I was awake and conscious the whole time, but I could have sworn I dozed off and missed a few things.

The patchy narrative revolves around a traveling sideshow of the sort you might find at a state fair. The crew consists of Doctor Parnassus (Gilliam regular Christopher Plummer), a drunk, desperate old man; his daughter Valentina (model Lily Cole), a teenager who dreams of a comfortable and well-adjusted life; Anton, a young roustabout who's in love with Valentina, but who's incurably attached to the transient lifestyle; and Percy, a little person who forever accompanies Parnassus on his journeys. Percy seems to have little purpose except to be Parnassus's sounding board, and to give the sideshow "carnival cred." He is one of many characters included to add flavor, but never significantly contributing.

We gradually discover that Parnassus is embroiled in a wager with the devil (Mr. Nick, played by Tom Waits) and that the wager is still evolving. The stakes include eternal youth, love, family loyalty, and the collection of human souls, which Parnassus procures by leading them through his magic mirror and into a land dictated by his imagination. Parnassus and Mr. Nick seem to have an inevitable doomsday arrangement, until the arrival of Tony, an amnesiac and born huckster. Tony is played primarily by Heath Ledger, but with occasional dreamtime substitutions by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law. These switches aren't evenly integrated into the plot, but things are so haphazard that one hardly even notices; consistency isn't an expectation that the film ever really sets for itself. The plot follows the changing family and cosmic business relationships between the characters, as Tony's presence upsets them and eventually leads them to some sort of resolution. If the movie sounds all over the place, that's because it absolutely is.

After that confusing plot description, you might be asking yourself, "So wait… who exactly is this movie for?" That's a difficult question to answer, but it's very important if you're thinking of buying tickets, because you may love it, but if you don't fit into the right audience group, there's a good chance you'll hate it.

You should see The Imaginarium if you're a fan of Gilliam… especially of his wilder work, like Brazil, Baron Munchausen, or Monty Python. You should see it if you're ready to let go of your expectations and let a visual and conceptual spectacle simply wash over you. You should see it if you're in a giddy, ready-for-whatever kind of mood, or if you feel like indulging your ADHD-ridden inner child.

You should not see Doctor Parnassus out of loyalty to Heath Ledger. This isn't The Dark Knight or A Knight's Tale. You also shouldn't see it if you've heard of Terry Gilliam and simply want to catch a movie from an important director. Finally, you shouldn't see it if you've got an armful of kids and want a traditional children's movie. There's nothing wholesome or life-affirming about Gilliam's worldview, and he's a little raunchy and a bit illogical for a family audience.

Ultimately, to enjoy Imaginarium, you have to find the right frame of mind. You have to be able to undergo a sensory bombardment, and you have to be sensitized to ambiguity and exaggeration. Parnassus's background as a monk, the quirky inner lives of the various characters who get caught in his net, and the unhinged fairy-tale logic of his world, once you buy into it, will amuse and mystify you, even if it's a bit bewildering.

Finally, for those of you who read reviews for a clear opinion — I'll wrap up my piece with a straightforward assessment. As a movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is merely decent, with its mad imaginative charm barely making up for its lack of cohesion and consistency. However, as a spectacle and a curiosity, it's a fascinating, whimsical addition to Gilliam's oeuvre, and an essential continuation of his themes. Though I have doubts that it will be much remembered, it deserves every bit of cult status it will inevitably attain.

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