Rated PG13/122 min.
Terry Gilliam doesn’t make timid movies. Even with notable misfires, the former Monty Python member continues to solidify his status as one of the world’s boldest, bravest and most original filmmakers. His latest had a famously troubled production, with the death of Heath Ledger causing the project to shut down, then start back up again with a reworked approach to the story and Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law alternating in the role Ledger plays. The result is not only a seamless reconstruction, but a return to form for Gilliam, who hasn’t made a film this terrific since 12 Monkeys.
Christopher Plummer stars in the title role, the owner of a theater on wheels who travels the globe and lures audiences into his “Imaginarium,” the world on the other side of his magic mirror that shows you your dreams and nightmares. Parnassus has been doing this show for hundreds of years, and he’s been relentlessly pursued by the Devil (Tom Waits, perfectly cast) over an ill-conceived bargain they made long ago. A young actor named Tony (Ledger, whose introductory scene will shock many) joins Parnassus’s troupe, brings an updated look and approach to the weary stage show and strives to keep his secret, which is equally Faustinian and sinister, from Parnassus.
Ledger’s final performance anchors the film and, as in Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, the director brings out the actor’s lively, creative side—a far cry from some of the stiff, uninspired star vehicles he helmed during his too-brief career. The added technique of having three other actors play Tony whenever he steps into the Imaginarium works remarkably well, with Depp funny and dapper as a woman’s ultimate fantasy, Law giving a manic, cartoon-like performance and Ferrall getting the most screen time, embodying a corrupt moral figure (yes, this all makes sense when you see the film). The only drawback is that, once Ferrall takes over the part during the film’s climax, Ledger disappears from the movie. It would have been nice to see Ledger one last time but, of course, there was no unused footage of him left to incorporate.
Though things get a tad cartoonish at times, as with Gilliam’s masterpieces (The Fisher King, Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), his overwhelming visuals and complex, layered storytelling complement each other and don’t derail the narrative. This isn’t another Tideland or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where you walk away feeling assaulted by a swarm of psychedelic images.
This Faust-based story is a grand tale with fantastic special effects, sly humor and a stunning, moving ending that is both poetic and bittersweet. Plummer brings a tragic dimension to Parnassus and Verne Troy (yes, Mini Me) is hilarious as a scene-stealing sideman.
Once again, Gilliam has visualized the impossible and presents wonders that are amazing to dream, let alone create. I go to his films to see things I’ve never seen before—and he doesn’t disappoint. – MauiTime, Barry Wurst II