“can you put a price on your dreams?”
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is grandiose from the very title down to the last frame of the closing credits. Everything about this film is crashingly showy. On strictly visual terms, director Terry Gilliam has created a spectacular display with this film. The same cannot always be said of the plot, which is always going somewhere, but where is an open question. It is a strange, ramshackle beast, hard to understand and harder to explain.
Heath Ledger’s death midway through filming nearly halted production entirely, until Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell stepped in to finish unshot scenes. This comes out in the ramshackle storyline, which wanders from subplot to subplot with no clear destination. Gilliam’s central message is muddled as well: it might be a morality play about good versus evil, but I was never quite sure. Nonetheless, there are moments of genuine joy to be had, when the plot, production, and performances line up just so, and in these instants, Doctor Parnassus is sublime.
Strong performances from Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits (!) carry the film. Plummer is best in the moments when he is on the verge of giving up: his utter weariness is painful to see. Waits steals every scene he’s in, playing the Devil as a leering shyster with all the growling menace he can muster. Ledger’s performance as Tony is rambling and improvisational, and sometimes scenes run overlong for it. His “transformed” versions seem disconnected from Tony’s character; unsurprising given that they were brought in as a stop-gap measure to get the film finished. Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole are both solid in their supporting roles, although their respective plots don’t seem to go anywhere—probably due to missing scenes with Ledger.
Gilliam and his frequent collaborator, Charles McKeown, wrote Doctor Parnassus, and unfortunately their dialogue hasn’t gotten significantly better since Brazil. Scenes feel very stilted at turns, and Verne Troyer’s dialogue especially comes across as incidental at best. While the first rule of cinema is show, don’t tell, Gilliam and McKeown frequently fail to show enough; this leads to confusing scenes that only become meaningful much later when more context is established. Waits’ dialogue is the best in the film, although that owes much to his performance. Much of Ledger’s lines were improvised, and he tends to ramble. On the whole, the writing is the weakest aspect of the film.
Because of the weak script and the necessity of editing around Ledger’s scenes, the whole film takes on a rickety aspect, rattling from one subplot to the next with only the barest of over-arching threads to hold it together. The general story of the eons-long battle between Doctor Parnassus and the Devil feels folded-in, subsumed in the visual smorgasbord that Gilliam creates. Tony’s story ends abruptly, putting focus back onto Parnassus. A lack of focus permeates the film. Nonetheless, the ending manages to complete this shambling storyline in a bittersweet but satisfying way. Given all the obstacles this film’s production faced, the fact that Gilliam manages to end it at all is an achievement.
The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson notes the parallels between Doctor Parnassus’ plot and Gilliam’s own career: “there’s a lot of Gilliam in Plummer’s tragically ineffectual character.” Gilliam’s dogged determination to tell his stories, grandiose and fraught with trouble as they are, is mirrored in Plummer’s displaced sideshow, lost in an era that no longer cares about the imagination. The transparent way in which Parnassus’ legerdemain works, with palmed coins and confetti, drives home how out-of-place his stories are in cynical downtown London. Gilliam’s tale is simultaneously bitter and hopeful, eager to find a Tony willing to buy into his ideas completely.