I've missed Terry Gilliam. In the 80s, he was one of our prime purveyors of phantasmagoria, a dependable source of weird, wonderful, difficult films that nobody else would make. The intervening years haven't been kind to him, with a string of misfires and stillborn projects, including the notoriously thwarted "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Though none of his films were ever exactly lighthearted entertainment, the most recent ones got so dark and claustrophobic, you wondered whatever happened to the guy who gave us the elderly swashbuckling accountants of "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" or put naked Uma Thuman in a giant clamshell for "The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen."
So it's a relief to find that Gilliam's latest, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" not only survived the death of its leading man, Heath Ledger, but marks the director's return to the full-fledged fantasy and whimsical mayhem that characterized his best work. The story follows the ancient Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the leader of a shabby troupe of traveling entertainers who work out of a ramshackle, horse-drawn wagon that doubles as their proscenium and their living quarters. The rest of the troupe includes Parnassus's budding teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who is sick of scraping by on the fringes of society, the barker Anton (Andrew Garfield), who yearns for Valentina, and a long-suffering dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer).
Their one and only act, the Imaginarium of the title, involves sending audience members through a strange portal that is connected to Parnassus's mind and lets them enter a fascinating dreamworld. There, they face temptation and are offered a chance at spiritual salvation. However, if they make the wrong choice, they fall into the clutches of the Devil (Tom Waits), who is stalking after the Imaginarium and Parnassus to collect on an old gambling debt. So where does Heath Ledger come into all of this? He's the mysterious stranger our little band finds hanging under a bridge one stormy night, by the neck, apparently dead. (Here we must give props to Gilliam for brass cojones, if nothing else.) Of course the mysterious stranger is not dead, but rather a live amnesiac named Tony, who joins Parnassus' troupe, learns of their troubles, and decides to help them stiff the Devil of his due.
Ledger delivers a charming, but noticeably incomplete final performance, and I couldn't help feeling robbed of his presence in the last reel of the film. As you may already know from the press, Ledger finished filming nearly all of his sequences outside of the Imaginarium before his death, so Gilliam and his crew were able to use film's fantasy elements to recast him for the missing bits inside the Imaginarium. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all step up to do their parts, but I'm sorry to say that it doesn't really work. These aren't just cameos, but almost the entire final third of the film pieced together out of the different performances. And because so much effort is expended on keeping Tony afloat, the rest of the characters are shortchanged, especially Parnassus and Valentina. It doesn't help that the narrative gets harder and harder to follow, and though an ending does present itself with a suitable amount of emotional closure, logically it makes no sense at all.
What does work are Gilliam's visuals, particularly the production design and the effects. In the real world, the Imaginarium is an astonishing anachronism, a patchwork of of Medieval passion play and Renaissance commedia dell'arte, sticking out like a sore thumb in modern day parking lots and shopping malls. Everything is handmade, mismatched, old as dirt, and held together with chewing gum and a lot of faith. You do not doubt for a second that these are people who may have been wandering the Earth with the very same act since before the birth of Christ, but perhaps never got the hang of electricity or motorized transportation.
Inside the Imaginarium is another story. Gilliam's painterly style had a tendency to clash with CGI in the past, most noticeably in "The Brothers Grimm." This time he uses it far more extensively than in any of his other films, and to amazing effect. Sharp eyes will notice some unfortunate technical flaws, but the dreamworlds of the Imaginarium are exactly what they should be: huge, lushly colored, impossible landscapes that could only exist in the imagination, and seem more real than real. I especially loved all the little nods to classical painters, a Boticelli angel here, a Salvador Dali desert there. It really feels like Gilliam got back to his roots as an animator and just let himself go nuts. And it's wonderful.
In the end, "Parnassus" is not one of the best Gilliam films, but it is a big step in the right direction. My worry is that with the state of independent filmmaking the way it is, and with Gilliam's amazing bad luck, we might not get many more like this out of him. But on the other hand, who else but Terry Gilliam would be able to come back from Ledger's death, and the death of his producer, and getting hit by a car, and all the other calamity around the production to reach the finish line? It is not wise to underestimate this man, and if his filmography has told us anything, it's that he can do great work even when all the odds are against him.
In fact, I hear he's trying to mount another attempt at "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Somehow I think it's going to take more than a few sidelined actors to stop him this time.