The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is rife with talk about the ability of the imagination to alter the world, and eventually Terry Gilliam’s cinematic imagination succeeds in transforming a film predicated on bland, unfocused plotting into a thing of nutso, surreal beauty, but it takes some time. After a brief tease of the wonders to follow, Gilliam basically wastes the first hour of his film, following its central family of itinerant showmen through standard-issue intrigue, static strategizing sessions and one scene of dull-minded mock-the-rich satire. Struggling to find its rhythm, Parnassus comes alive only in its detailing of the gypsy-like lifestyle of its characters and on those rare occasions when these struggling performers secure an audience, leading them through a magic mirror into the fucked-up CGI mindscape of the titular doctor (Christopher Plummer).
But once through the looking glass, the film never looks back. This desire-refracting dreamland dominates the film’s magnificent second half as the central plot (a race to win souls between paterfamilias Parnassus and his eternal rival) plays out against an astonishing background of ladders leading ever skyward, sinister charity events and dances with the devil (Tom Waits!) reflected in shimmering glass shards. Along the way, Parnassus’s factotum Heath Ledger transforms into Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, while Gilliam movingly locates the hard weight of eternal life in Plummer’s weathered visage and his character’s increasing decrepitude. If, per one of the film’s conceits, the continual telling of stories is what sustains the universe, then it’s not so much the director’s narrative gifts that carry his latest project, as his transformative visual imagination.
Opens December 25