Be careful what you wish for. That’s the message underlying Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” and, as it turns out, it’s one that Gilliam fans might want to take to heart.
After a run of three brilliant, wildly inventive films in the 1980s (“Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”), the Monty Python animator-turned-filmmaker has spent the last couple of decades trying to inject his style into more conventional movies. Sometimes the results have been very satisfying (“The Fisher King,” “12 Monkeys”) and sometimes not (“The Brothers Grimm”).
For “Parnassus,” Gilliam seems to have completely unleashed his creative mojo again, filling the screen with one fantastically weird image after another. Fans of undiluted Gilliam movies like “Time Bandits” will rejoice. But the storyline he’s come up with to hang these visions on is pretty rickety, and “Parnassus” becomes, while certainly worth seeing, an easier movie to admire than to like.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a prototypical Gilliam hero, an ancient storyteller and magician who tramps through the streets of London with his traveling carnival show, performing in the street for belligerent drunks. His daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) yearns for escape, and his assistants Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer) aren’t much more enthusiastic.
But there’s much more going behind the ragged curtain of Parnassus’ traveling show than it appears. A mirror at the back of the stage turns into a doorway in which the visitor can enter a world created out of his imagination. A drunk who stumbles into the mirror early in the film finds himself in a giant pit full of liquor bottles, then gets plucked by a disembodied hand and hauled up into outer space, where he’s harassed by floating jellyfish. (Seriously, if you could make money designing other people’s acid trips, Gilliam would be a zillionaire.)
Also lurking in those imaginary worlds is the Devil himself, played in a bit of genius casting by musician Tom Waits. Thanks to a previous wager with Dr. Parnassus, the Devil will take possession of Valentina in a few days when she turns 16, but since he can’t resist a bet, he offers Parnassus one more chance to get her back. The first one to attract five souls to their side wins, and if Parnassus wins, he gets to keep Valentina.
At first, the Devil thinks it’s a shoo-in. The base temptations he offers are just too powerful when pitted against Parnassus’ entreaties that people use their imaginations for more noble pursuits. But the odds are evened somewhat when Parnassus’ troupe comes across a mysterious man hanging from a bridge.
It’s still a bit of a shock when we see that the man is Heath Ledger (“Imaginarium” was his last role, unfinished upon his death in 2008). He plays Tony, a smooth-talking amnesiac with a shady past who can help Parnassus snap up some souls.
Plummer is wry and wise as Parnassus, and Ledger does a nice job with an ill-defined role, but the bickering among the troupe members gets a little wearying, and the bet between Parnassus and the Devil feels arbitrary. You start itching for somebody to jump back through that mirror and into one of Gilliam’s hallucinatory dreamscapes, like the wealthy woman who sees a vista of giant high-heeled shoes.
As a morbid bonus, in those dream sequences, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all step in to take over Ledger’s scenes, which serves as a nice little tribute between actors. “A Film From Heath Ledger and Friends” reads a title card at the end of the movie, instead of the expected “A Terry Gilliam Film.” If “Imaginarium” isn’t the best film Ledger’s ever done, it is the sort of quirky, oddball project that he gravitated to.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS
Stars: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits
Rated: PG-13 language, violence
How long: 2:02
Where: Sundance, Eastgate
For fans of: "Time Bandits," "The Dark Knight," acid trips without the side effects