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.