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THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is whatever you wish it to be


Never, never, never make a deal with the devil. The devil doesn't care about winning and losing, he just wants to play. Sadly, Doctor Parnassus learns this the hard way. The Imaginarium is a film from the warped mind of Terry Gilliam, made stranger still by the passing of Heath Ledger midway through production. It's a beautiful, creative, perplexing ride through the mind of its creator, incomprehensible at times and downright ludicrous at others. Still, like The Box, if you're able to save the questions for later and enjoy the gorgeous, strange trip, you'll be better off for it. 

A little back story. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a thousand years old. He's a man with much history and many regrets. Parnassus has many stories to tell and believes the universe is sustained by the stories we weave throughout our lives. He has the gift of allowing people to enter his own brain through a mirror and experience a magical world constructed of their own imagination. Unfortunately, these days he can't get anyone to give it a try. 

Long ago Doctor Parnassus bet the devil that he could attract 12 souls to follow him first. He won that bet, and eternal life with it. What he didn't realize is that the devil has nothing but time on his hands. Eventually the world turned its back on storytelling and toward the flashier temptations of the devil. The doctor is now a sideshow who spends his days drinking himself into a stupor. His assistant Percy (Verne Troyer), daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and employee Anton (Andrew Garfield) are all that keep him going, but things are looking grim. That is, until they meet Tony (Heath Ledger). I won't even try to describe Ledger's character except that he's more than a little shifty, and quite the showman. We never fully understand what Tony wants, but he decides to help Doctor Parnassus update his show, and when the devil comes a knocking, it's Tony that finally makes the game worth playing again. 

If all this sounds crazy, it is. Gilliam doesn't waste time spelling themes and meanings out to us and delights in his specific brand of excess. Those familiar with classic Monty Python films, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brazil, or Twelve Monkeys should already understand. It's Doctor Parnassus who guides the imagination of others, but what we see is all Gilliam. Computer generated paper forests, candy lands, endless deserts, cross-dressing cops, a 60-foot robot mother, and giant flying lily pads fill the many worlds behind the mirror. 

Even Tony becomes a tool for the imagination. Each time he enters the mirror with a new person, his own face changes to become whoever they wish him to be. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell step in for Ledger during these moments, a necessity because of Ledger's death a third of the way through production. At times, Law and Depp appear so similar to the departed Ledger that I actually had to squint to figure out who I was watching. 

Still, Gilliam does nearly lose himself in his own special effects, and the production's low $30 million dollar budget painfully shines through during extended sequences in the Imaginarium. At one point we see a giant snake with the face of the devil, but it looks more like an early 90s CGI demo than a sequence in a 2010 movie. If only Gilliam had $350 million to run with like James Cameron had for Avatar. I can't imagine how visually gratifying that film would be, though I bet Gilliam can.

Aside from Ledger, I particularly enjoyed the performances of Vern Troyer and Christopher Plummer. It's great to see Troyer finally cast in a role without Mike Myers. He is particularly funny and captivating as Percy, the one guy who sticks with Parnassus through it all. Plummer is also a treat to behold, and I hope he gets some more roles like this. Andrew Garfield is a solid up-and-comer as well. I expect we haven't seen the last of him.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will probably enrage and bother some viewers. Those who demand coherence and structure will leave disastrously disappointed. Others may leave happy, elated after witnessing a good acid trip. I appreciate the film because it cuts itself loose and lets each of us decide what to make of its tale. I don't fully understand it, but there is a genius behind Terry Gilliam's madness and I intend to figure it out one of these days.

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