The disasters of Tideland and The Brothers Grimm had seemingly diminished any high hopes retained by Terry Gilliam aficionados pertaining to the quality of his newest effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. However, the casting of such stars as Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger and, um, Verne Troyer raised hopes that his next piece would be a return to form. Unfortunately, Gilliam’s latest remains too incomprehensible and uneven to really cement its reputation amongst the rest of his filmography.
The plot (or at least as much as one can decipher) sees Christopher Plummer’s titular doctor lead a ramshackled sideshow designed to sate punters’ wildest fantasies. Proceedings are complicated by the arrival of Heath Ledger’s amnesiac and Tom Waits’ silver-tongued Beelzebub, the latter of whom seems to have some unfinished business with the good doctor.
This core premise works reasonably well, and, indeed, the cast is largely excellent; Parnassus (an obvious avatar for Gilliam) is played with great game by Plummer, whilst Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield provide able support. Likewise, though his accent seems to shift inexplicably halfway through the film from Londoner to General Australian, Ledger is excellent in his final role as the distinctly unlikeable Tony.
However, it is Waits who truly impresses; sauntering sporadically into the film playfully smoking a cigarette, he steals the show right from under everyone’s noses. An effortless display of devilish flair erupts whenever the actor enters the fray, his appearances a refreshing spell of caustic glee amidst what is often a very confusing and poorly-constructed narrative.
Indeed, Parnassus is often something of a mess – pacing frequently feels off and important plot points barely dwelt upon (whilst Gilliam will happily devote several minutes to Troyer plucking a chicken), resulting in an oft-incomprehensible stream of imagery. And whilst the film may possess a wonderful aesthetic its flights of fancy often leave the viewer lacking any real connection with the characters. One feels that Gilliam should remember his more understated (and underrated) The Fisher King, where magic realism had its place but was limited enough so as not to distance proceedings from the audience.
However, for every infuriating moment there’s another dazzling display of the brilliance which has carved Gilliam a career for the past 40 years. Muddled, confusing but generally entertaining and certainly provoking, Parnassus may be flawed but at least provides a passable jaunt into Gilliam’s very own Imaginarium for two hours.