In Theaters: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
For the first 20 minutes or so of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam's latest labor of love and chaos, I fought off the suspicion that I'd rather be watching a documentary about the film's blighted production. This is partly Gilliam's fault -- the introductory sequence is painfully oblique, laborious in its attempts at whimsy and off-kilter charm -- and partly that of Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, whose Lost in La Mancha, a chronicle of Gilliam's disastrous attempt to adapt Don Quixote, was as layered and entertaining as the director's best work, all of which is over a decade behind him. Famously hamstrung by the January 2008 death of its star, Heath Ledger, Imaginarium was saved by the subbing-in of three actors to cover Ledger's unfinished scenes; the film then faced the death of one of its producers and continuous funding and sale snags. The Gilliam curse was beginning to outpace, in reputation and dramatic flair, the actual films he had so much trouble making. In deciding to complete and release Imaginarium, Gilliam and Co. had accepted a challenge from the gods; this demands respect. Audiences will be similarly challenged to accept this film on its own terms, of which there are plenty, and separate its already sizable mythology from its more meager, but perfectly respectable, mortal offerings.
Pulling into a modern London parking lot late at night, the Parnassus roadshow -- a giant, careering, traveling stage that is one of the film's more delightful visual set pieces -- is completely out of its element, an almost embarrassing relic. The team determinedly set up shop anyway: there is Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), made up like a kabuki genie, who sits on stage in silent meditation with a middle distance stare; his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), teenage eye candy who lends mild assistance and ineffable mystique to the proceedings; Anton (Andrew Garfield), the carny barker who, in theory, explains the show to would-be participants, ever clenching his raging crush on Valentina between his molars; and Percy (Verne Troyer), the requisite little person with sass to spare.
The least impressive installation on the Imaginarium stage, in fact, is the makeshift mirror (really a curtain of reflective strips) through which customers pass, entering a world in which their own ids are run through the imaginative filter of Parnassus. Or something. "Don't worry if you don't understand it all immediately," we are told, and apparently "immediately" is relative: very little about the nature of Parnassus's powers or how they actually work comes clear, and the thematic play ranges from blatant self-indulgence to breakneck incoherence. Yet the combination of Gilliam's reliably stunning visuals and complex, involving performances help him build unlikely narrative momentum; one begins to care about the clear-eyed characters more than the muddled story.