Nary a day seems to go by anymore without some film-minded fellow lamenting the lack of originality in Hollywood, and nary a film of Terry Gilliam's goes by without being filled to the brim with whimsical notions and fanciful thoughts. Any man who made both Time Bandits and Brazil couldn't help but stand out and often above conventional fare, although Gilliam's efforts of late (the aggressively dour Tideland, for instance) suggest that perhaps the auteur is past his prime. So leave it to Gilliam to retreat toward the memory of his own Adventures of Baron Munchausen with his latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
The good doctor of the title (Christopher Plummer) was once committed to telling the stories that made the world go 'round, until the devilish Mr. Nick (a perfectly cast Tom Waits) made him a bargain for immortality. Now Parnassus is left to roam the world with his traveling sideshow, luring in a skeptical audience by allowing their imaginations to run wild within his own mind until offering them a choice between temptation and redemption. (Mr. Nick gets dibs on the poor souls who choose the former.)
As fate should have it, Parnassus' wagon lurches to a stop just in time to prevent a noose-saddled Tony (Heath Ledger, in his last role) from biting it. While Tony doesn't recall who he is or why he was hanged, he's a natural-born salesman and exactly the kind of help that Parnassus needs if he hopes to save the soul of his teenage daughter (Lily Cole) from being collected next.
What starts out as a lively requiem for a unique storyteller unwanted by the modern masses turns into a parade of unleashed ids and indulged egos both on and off-screen; the landscapes hastily paraded within the Imaginarium are every bit as visionary as anything the auteur has dreamed up. They vary in effect ' a musical number that harkens back to his Monty Python days; an inessential, brightly colored candyland early on ' but more often than not, these detours serve the story and bring the innermost desires of each character to life.
The ensemble here is game: Plummer is both crusty and clever and Cole is as virginal as they come, while Andrew Garfield fawns over her as a colleague on the stage and competitor for her heart. His competition happens to be Ledger's character, and with what little time he has on the screen, the late actor demonstrates all the devious charms that would've won over any audience that hadn't already known his talents. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell are called in to supplement his performance once Tony disappears into the Imaginarium, and they all rise to the occasion.
By the third act, though, all the overlapping ambitions and newfound exceptions to established rules overwhelm whatever magic there initially was. It's a hurried ending that sells the characters short, and Ledger's passing can't be faulted for it; if anything, it seems that Gilliam may have been so eager to cram so much into his next big gamble that he smothered what was already working.
More power to Gilliam for having an overactive imagination ' someone in this industry needs to ' but I'd much rather see him run wild with a few Big Ideas instead of letting them all run amok. We can't stop stories from being told, as Parnassus tells Mr. Nick, but we can hope that they won't be told all at once.