Marred by shoddy special effects and half-formed fantastical conceits, Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” has the feeling of a comic fantasia desperately seeking to find its rhythm. Nearly abandoned after the sudden death of leading man Heath Ledger prior to completing production in January of last year, the final result reflects the frantic cobbling together of missing pieces. Ledger’s posthumous status haunts his scenes, as it does in the moments in which various actors replace him. Compounding that problem, the cartoonish CGI and inconsistent storytelling yield a seriously disjointed experience. Still, “Parnassus” deserves to be seen, probed and evaluated as an interesting misfire in Gilliam’s delectably quizzical canon.
The movie revolves around the eponymous traveling stage show, led by Dr. Parnassus (an enjoyably senile Christopher Plummer), a millennia-old magician whose immortality stems from a deal he made with the Devil (Tom Waits, topping his fleeting role as an angel in Tony Scott’s “Domino” with this far more appropriate casting decision). Unfortunately for Parnassus, the contract requires him to give up his daughter when she turns sixteen, a possibility that the younger doctor – at the time, childless – chose to ignore. In the present, though, he winds up with a lovely teenager named Valentina (Lily Cole) – and she’s on the brink of her sweet sixteen as the story begins.
The set up works; the details bump along with incorrigible problems. The bulk of the spectacle in “Parnassus” involves the other side of a mirror on his set, where attendees can venture into a sweepingly lyrical world within the confines of the showman’s mind. From the first scene, the problem of this central prop comes into focus: The world behind the mirror looks more than just fake – it looks cheesy. A psychedelic unreality akin to Tim Burton’s remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” this loopy alternate world becomes less of a problem at later points in the movie, but the transparency makes it hard to establish a credible aura of mystery from the outset.
Worse than that, the overall mythology of Parnassus and his magical troupe never truly congeals. There’s no hints at whether the world around him acknowledges the feasibility of his magical prowess or he must keep it a secret, “Harry Potter”-style. Without a steady framework in which to understand the movie, it lacks a much-needed luster from the beginning.
Ledger’s character complicates this glaring distraction. As Mr. Nick, an amnesiac discovered by the troupe and haphazardly added to their lineup, he dons a witty demeanor with enjoyable quirks. But Ledger’s very presence constantly forces the viewer to acknowledge his death, far more so than when he appeared as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” a mere six months after his demise. Nick’s first appearance in “Parnassus” invokes the real world casualty with the unseemly image of the actor hanging from a noose. Additionally, many scenes directly acknowledge his passing. In one, where Johnny Depp plays Mr. Nick – since he appears, in a clever bit of last-minute rewriting, in a slightly different form behind the mirror – the character discusses the current state of dead stars. “They are beyond fear,” he says. “Because they are forever young, they are gods.” It’s the kind of frustrating overstatement that belongs on the cutting room floor.
Still, “Parnassus” benefits from all-around solid performances from its entire cast, a factor that helps the wonder eventually settle into place. The other two main supporting actors, Verne Troyer as the troupe’s resident little person and Andrew Garfield as the supporting player in love with Valentina, never hog the screen as overt sideshow attractions. The gimmick of Mr. Nick’s changing faces has an obvious, tacked-on feel, but the two other actors filling his shoes, Depp and Colin Farrell, both know what they’re doing. One of the end credits calls the movie “a film from Heath Ledger and friends,” implying less of a finished product than a memento with shiny wrapping paper, and it definitely achieves that much.
Toward the end, in starts to turn into something better than that. The rather lengthy sequence with Farrell as Dr. Nick surpasses everything that came before, not because of his performance but due to Gilliam’s marvelously innovative design. Parnassus’s world falls apart at the seams, thanks to a deliciously quirky soundtrack and the eruption of visual splendor. Culminating with a literal dance with the Devil, “Parnassus” finally discovers a strange and wonderful vibe.
The relentless Hollywood outsider, Gilliam’s career is marked by his willingness to fight against impossible odds in order to realize his vision, much like Orson Welles. Despite all its difficulties, “Parnassus” continues to display Gilliam’s distinctive talents, and at least he finished the damn thing. In that sense, “Parnassus” is his “The Magnificent Ambersons,” rather than “The Other Side of the Wind,” if the Welles comparison makes sense.
Meanwhile, the potential for discovering Gilliam’s mind as we explore the one belonging to his main character gives the movie an intriguing autobiographic edge. “We need to meet the public halfway,” Mr. Nick tells the troupe, explaining how they can improve the show. “The secret is not to hide, to go places people never expected you at.” On that level, “Parnassus” undoubtedly works as an ongoing quest to generate awe. There are glimmers of it in the finale, which involves a coherent universe of frenzied visuals, leaving us to contemplate the potential for a better result.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the Cannes Film Festival. “Dr. Parnassus” opens in limited release Christmas Day.