Oh, Terry Gilliam. We love you because your films are crazy quilts of our deepest fears and our most secret hopes. You can’t be boxed up with other filmmakers, you won’t be bound by storytelling conventions, and not even the cold heartlessness of fate can stop you from committing cinema.
Though maybe this time it should have.
It’s fi ne that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus defies any attempts to boil it down into something “reasonable.” What’s not so fine is that it just doesn’t work on any level other than the meta-level. The most intriguing aspect of the film is how Gilliam managed to cobble something together — after the death of Heath Ledger in the middle of production, with not all of his bits already shot — that isn’t actually a complete and utter disaster, only a partial one. Of course, he had the benefit of working in a genre — the surrealistic mindf--- fantasy — that lends itself to “simply” recasting other actors to play the same role.
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), see, sold his soul to the Devil lo these many years ago in exchange for immortality but has reconsidered the deal, and renegotiates with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) for a chance to win his soul back... which involves selling unsuspecting customers of his traveling sideshow a peek into their own subconscious. But there’s something about how it all hangs together — or, in fact, doesn’t — in the finished product that suggests to me that what we ended up with on the screen isn’t quite what Gilliam had in mind from the beginning.
Substituting Ledger with Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp — who are all game enough, for they may or may not be playing “themselves,” as famous faces, in the imaginations of those who see them — is indeed a clever way to get around not having Ledger to shoot... except it’s nothing but cunning. It doesn’t further what appear to be Gilliam’s major concerns here — this is a world in which mystical monks tell “a story that sustains the universe” but where the power of imagination seems to be waning. Any concern beyond getting the film finished appears to have been forgotten.