Inevitably, there are those movies you want to like more than others, and just as inevitably those film’s occasionally let you down. Terry Gilliam has long been one of my favorite directors, but The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a visual feast of a rambling mess that takes far too long to get going and offers far too few people to care about.
I am all for the mud-driven fantasy – Gilliam has trafficked this ground successfully in The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - where we experience a less than shiny fairy tale, often set in the modern world, and I am all for stories that question the validity of the story we’re being told – again, more familiar ground to Gilliam, including his best films, 12 Monkeys and Brazil – but Parnassus is less a story as it is an elongated set-up followed by a succession of set pieces that ultimately fail to effectively come together. They are often beautiful to look at but empty to experience.
There are two films here, really. The first half of the film deals with the downtrodden Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his traveling troupe of stage performers, and the second half deals more explicitly with Tony (Heath Ledger) and the bet between Parnassus and the Devil (Tom Waits) to collect five souls to save Parnassus’ daughter.
It’s a nice idea but since no one in the film (with the exception of Percy, played rather effectively by Verne Troyer) is all that interesting, the film fails to gel. The Devil is not worth rooting for, but then, neither is Parnassus, who long ago believed that he and his monks must tell their story or else the universe would perish. The Devil proves this to be false and then … Parnassus falls in love, makes a deal with the Devil, and … really, it’s not worth explaining because what we have is a movie filled with storytellers who have all become either disillusioned with the idea of a story moving an audience, or who knowingly use stories to lie to an audience for self-gain.
Parnassus wants to believe his audience has left him, but really it’s he who has abandoned his belief in an audience worth entertaining. While his audience in his monk days was the mythical audience of the universe, at least then he believed in what he was doing. In the modern present, however, he is a drunk, wayward huckster, peddling his stage show without passion.
Likewise, Tony (Heath Ledger) peddles lies under the guise of the charitable benefactor for personal gain, manipulating a story that moves people for his own personal gain.
It’s certainly possible to make a compelling movie about bad people, but it’s far more difficult to tell a compelling story about uninteresting people.
Where the “mad” storytellers of Gilliam’s past always had their moment of vindication (which, in turn, offered us the vindication of the storyteller and the story), here the spoils go to those who leave their Narnia or Neverland behind.
It’s hard not to read the film as Gilliam’s own attempt at figuring out just who he is in the modern cinematic world but tragically what Parnassus offers isn’t hopeful for any of his characters save those who ultimately choose to step outside the story.
And for that to be the message of a Gilliam film is a bigger tragedy than his simply making a bad movie.