January 10, 2010 -- “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a film of remarkable visual imagination from the unique vision of writer-director Terry Gilliam. I am not a big fan of Gilliam's films, although “The Fisher King” is a masterpiece, and you'd be hard pressed to find anything funnier than “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but I do think Gilliam is a genius when it comes to creating his own imaginary world on film. Other than Tim Burton, there aren't any other directors who are able to create the kind of fantastic alternate realities that Terry Gilliam can. Sometimes, his films turn into disasters (one was chronicled in the documentary “Lost in La Mancha”) others misfire, but there is never a lack of imagination in a Gilliam film.
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is not one of Gilliam's masterpieces, but it does have some of his best work in terms of visual imagination. The film's plot wobbles a lot, but the basic idea is that Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer of “The Lake House”) is the good guy, and Mr. Nick (played by Tom Waits of “Wristcutters: A Love Story”) is the bad guy, the devil, in fact. In a wager with Mr. Nick, Parnassus received eternal life, but Parnassus' daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole of “Rage”) must surrender her soul to Mr. Nick on her 16th birthday. The bet is altered to allow Valentina to escape this fate if Doctor Parnassus can convert five souls to his own, less materialistic, way of thinking by Valentina's birthday, which is only days away.
Dr. Parnassus travels around in an ungainly carnival wagon which can be set up for stage performances anywhere. The centerpiece of the show is a mirror through which a person can pass into Dr. Parnassus' imagination. Those who pass through the mirror encounter a variety of worlds, some realistic, others cartoon-like. These journeys into imagination are where Gilliam really cuts loose. There are ladders from the ground into clouds, giant heads popping up out of the ground, strange creatures and stranger landscapes. The images range from colorful daydreams to dark nightmares (Mr. Nick also inhabits this world beyond the mirror). Those who are converted to Parnassus' way of thinking come out with joy in their hearts. Those who follow the path of Mr. Nick are destroyed. There are important choices to be made in Dr. Parnassus' Imaginarium.
The convoluted plot involves other characters including Tony (Heath Ledger of “The Dark Knight” in his last film appearance prior to his untimely death. The film is dedicated to him). Tony has alter-egos which appear in the imaginarium (played by Jude Law of “Sherlock Holmes”, Colin Farrell of “Crazy Heart” and Johnny Depp of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). Also in the mix is the sidekick, and conscience, of Dr. Parnassus, Percy (Vern Troyer of “Austin Powers in Goldmember”). The story is odd and doesn't really hang together very well, but the film is worth watching mainly to experience the wonder of Mr. Gilliam's fantastic visual imagination. This film rates a B.
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