The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is 30 minutes of solid entertainment crammed into two hours of above average art direction and cinematography.
Sadly, Terry Gilliam’s new film never delivers on its promises. Doctor Parnassus is visually appealing; the music is good. Cinematography and performances are solid, but the film’s heart only begins to show itself in the epilog. From a story standpoint, it’s confused and confusing, and I slowly began to realize that director Gilliam had as little idea of where the second act was going as I did at that point. I’m a fan of his prior work, but this film is self indulgent and obfuscated in the extreme.
No doubt, it was hobbled by the death of star Heath Ledger before the finish of principal photography. This forced Gilliam to use friends and colleagues in Ledger’s place (and what friends they are; Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all portray Tony, Ledger’s character, at various intervals inside the Imaginarium), but none of the replacements seem to be portraying the same character as Ledger.
The actor’s death also seems to have inspired script monkeying in the extreme in order to minimize Tony’s presence in the third act, and the whole story tumbles gracelessly to the ground as a result.
The actors acquit themselves well, though Depp seems to channel a bit of leftover Captain Jack Sparrow at times, and Law just looks confused for much of his stint. Verne Troyer is watchable as – what else – an annoyed midget (which is the word he uses to describe himself in the film, no angry letters from little people, please).
Lily Cole starts strong but becomes a bit disinterested by the time she realizes the film is going to be a dud. She seems to quit trying very hard about halfway through.
As Doctor Parnassus, Christopher Plummer treads familiar ground. (I got the impression that he was recycling his performance from John Boorman’s "Where the Heart Is.") But he’s having a good time and gets the job done.
Tom Waits as Mr. Nick (the devil): hard to believe he hasn’t already played this role, isn’t it? He does an adequate job as a sympathetic prince of darkness. Ledger as Tony isn’t going to win accolades for his one-note characterization, but he plays the role better than his celebrity stand-ins, which should come as no surprise, given that he had far longer to prepare for the role.
None of the characters are particularly sympathetic except Anton, played by Andrew Garfield. Unfortunately, he’s never given any real emotional meat to chew. No one is in this film. They all have to make do with chewing the scenery, instead.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is recommended viewing for hardcore Gilliam fans and art directors with a soft spot for Victorian gypsy aesthetic. Otherwise. . .
I give it 2.5 out of a possible 4 Ministry Of Silly Walks Sketches.
Anthony Taylor is writer and producer, and one of the forces behind the documentary film, Full Boost Vertical: The Supercar Story, the definitive behind the scenes look at the Supermarionation television series. The DVD of Full Boost Vertical is available at FabGearUSA.com, among other excellent things.