The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
by Richard von Busack
FOR Terry Gilliam, Don Quixote is still the ur-text. Despite the various stops and starts he has had adapting the Cervantes classic, Gilliam repeatedly makes films about fantasy as an escape from a cruel world. This is an odd way to look at Don Quixote—it shoves aside the counterpoint: Sancho Panza’s view that the world has its lovable and sensual side that only a stubborn old madman would ignore. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a very personal and not-so-coherent fantasy, has Christopher Plummer in the Man of la Mancha role this time, with Verne Troyer (never better, really) as Percy, a dwarf Sancho Panza.
Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, an immortal sage reduced to busking in a horse-drawn Gypsy wagon. He and his crew set up their stand in the streets of modern-day London at its vilest, trying to lure patrons in to a world beyond the doctor’s mirror. (The model for this mystic carney could be found in Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr. Lao, or the 1964 film made from it, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.) On board are the old man’s apprentice, Anton (Andrew Garfield, in an underwritten part), and his daughter, Valentina (the Botticellian Lily Cole). Valentina doesn’t know that she has been promised to the devil on her 16th birthday; Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) is sniffing around already. During their travels, the group rescues a hanged man named Tony (an irresolute Heath Ledger); he may or may not be on the side of Nick, especially since the devil has decided to make a new wager for the souls of five strangers.
Certainly, Gilliam’s love for antique theater is true—although the greasepaint and cardboard make one wonder why he didn’t stage this story instead of filming it. The autobiographical angle is plain regarding the showman’s heartbreak—begging for money and coaxing an audience. We can understand why it’s hard for Gilliam when we see his vision of what the audience really is: rich matinee dames; wide-mouthed tarts coming out of a pub; a scurvy, violent little brat with a Game Boy.
This kind of misanthropy is a valid stance, but when mixed with the film’s urging us onto the higher plane, it gets wonky. The images of Nick’s red-neoned adultery motel and his Hellmouth pub represent a new kind of finger wagging in Gilliam’s work. They fit as strangely as Gilliam’s concluding filch from Stella Dallas. Striking images? Certainly. Waits, dressed like a ’30s British politician in bowler hat, cigarette holder and fur collar, brings a common sensual note to this film. I like the growl when he calls the dreaming mystic “Parny.” Cole is luscious, laid out like Isolde in an Anubis-headed boat. The various added faces Tony grows when he’s in Parnassus’ kingdom belong to Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell, all of whom came to the rescue of a movie suffering from Ledger’s untimely death.
Gilliam and co-scriptwriter Charles McKeown make a bald statement of their theme; Parnassus says that his work is to remind us of “the power of imagination to transform and illuminate our lives.” When one looks at the state of the world, the lack of narratives doesn’t seem to be the problem. Most of the planet is lost in fantasy permanently—rapt in idealized pasts, power dreams and invisible worlds. Gilliam could have hinted at a way to create more positive reveries, but that would have been stating an opinion regarding philosophy or religion, and he’s too slippery for that. Trying to puzzle out the theology here is like reading a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle.