The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (PG-13)
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Before I start relating the plot, I should say a few things concerning how I thought of the movie before I actually saw it. For one thing, there's the fact that one of the stars was Heath Ledger, who died in the middle of the film's production. People generally think of The Dark Knight as his last film, and at least that was his last completed role, but this is technically his last film. Upon his death, the role he played in the movie, Tony Shepherd, was completed by three other actors: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. And actually within the context of the story, it sort of made sense, and could easily have been intended to be done this way from the start... though it doesn't really make much difference one way or the other. It's just nice that the film was able to be completed, with help from actors who happened to be Heath's friends.
On an unrelated note, if you've read my review of Time Bandits, you'll know how I feel about Terry Gilliam films. (Though I must admit, I haven't seen all of them, and I really should eventually; besides which there may be a couple that I have seen, and don't remember that well.) But when I first saw a trailer for this movie online, I remember saying that I thought "I might finally like a Terry Gilliam film as much as I've always wanted to." And after finally watching the movie on DVD, I must say... I very nearly did. It's definitely better than any Gilliam film I can really recall, though I'm afraid it still wasn't quite as good as it might have been. But anyway, on to the plot...
It's set in modern London, but the main characters are part of a small travelling theatre troupe, of a sort. Kind of a sideshow type thing, they have a horse-drawn wagon, the back of which unfolds into a small but rather elaborately-decorated stage, with almost a medieval sort of quality about it (also vaguely Vaudevillian). The central performer, essentially, is Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who is supposedly 1000 years old (or thousands of years, it seems inconsistent). But really, all he does is sit in a trance, while a young man named Anton explains the show, in which Parnassus is supposed to transport a volunteer from the audience into the world of their imagination, or something like that. Another performer on the stage is Valentina, the daughter of Doctor Parnassus. (A bit later, we learn that she'll turn 16 in three days, though apparently he wants people to think she's only 12, which she herself says no one would possibly believe; and in fact the actress/model who played Valentina, Lily Cole, was like 19 or so, when the movie was filmed.) The one other performer in the troupe is Percy (Verne Troyer). He's an old friend of Parnassus; the two have been working together for quite some time, and he knows more of the truth about Parnassus than anyone else, but I'll get to that truth a bit later. I think there must be something special about Percy that I don't think was ever addressed in the film, but he himself must be older than he seems, and I'm not sure why. But it's not important, really, so let's just ignore that point. Anyway, Percy is apparently the only one who's aware of the most recent wager Parnassus had made with the Devil (yes, I'm getting ahead of myself; I'll tell of the first wager a bit later). At the moment, Parnassus and Percy are concerned about the fact that when Valentina turns 16, she will belong to the Devil.
As for the show, we soon see that there is a fake mirror that people can walk through, and wind up in a world of imagination. In the course of the film, we'll sort of vaguely learn a bit about the nature of this place, the Imaginarium, such as that there should not be more than one person in that world at a time, though in any scene we see inside the Imaginarium, there's always at least two people. As for how the Imaginarium came to exist in the first place, that is never explained at all. But anyway, it's just really weird in there, and can be either beautiful or disturbingly dark and twisted. And while inside, people are presented with a vague sort of choice which apparently constitutes good or evil, I guess. If they choose good, they eventually get back to the real world, and will be very happy, but if they choose evil, it seems they never return. Or maybe they do, I dunno, it's confusing. (Though the people who work for the show, it seems, can enter and exit the Imaginarium without necessarily facing this choice, themselves. They are, however, discouraged from going through the mirror, but events always seem to necessitate it, one way or another.)
Um... well, we learn that Valentina wants to run away and try to have a normal life. And we learn that Anton prefers the life he's living as a performer, though he's in love with Valentina, and would be willing to run away with her if she'd have him. Meanwhile, Parnassus realizes he has to explain to his daughter (who he calls "Scrumpy") the situation she's in regarding the Devil, so he begins to tell her the story of how he met the Devil (aka Mr. Nick, played by Tom Waits) many centuries ago, when he was one of a group of monks who were constantly telling a story, in a remote monastery, and the telling of the story is supposedly what kept the Universe going. The Devil shows up and tries to disprove this, but Parnassus refuses to accept it. Or at least, it may not be that these particular monks have to keep telling their story, but somewhere, someone else is telling another story. (I must say, I do like the idea that the telling of stories is what keeps the Universe going; I've had similar thoughts before, myself.) But anyway, they end up making a wager which seems to me to be indirectly related to the whole storytelling thing, something about the power of imagination. Parnassus and Mr. Nick each tried to sway a number of souls to their way of thinking, and Parnassus won the bet, so he was granted immortality. However, not dying didn't stop him from growing old. So this eventually leads to another deal with the Devil.
But before Parnassus can finish his story, the troupe is interrupted in its travels by the discovery of a man hanging by his neck, under a bridge the wagon is crossing over. So, they rescue the man, who, when he wakes up the next morning, claims to have lost his memory. Actually, he's keeping a secret, which we'll learn more about later in the movie. Meanwhile, Valentina seems to take a bit of a liking to him, which makes Anton jealous. Parnassus thinks at first that the man was sent by Mr. Nick, but later realizes this isn't true. He does, however, think that it's fate that they met him, and he begins working for the show, helping to drum up business. Of course, business is not helped by the fact that Parnassus drinks a great deal, and is often in no condition to perform (even as seemingly simple a role as sitting in a trance). Then Mr. Nick shows up again to offer Parnassus another bet: if he can win over five souls before the Devil, by Valentina's birthday (which is now two days away), then Parnassus can keep her. The Devil also tells him the name of the stranger, who Valentina had been calling "George." His name is actually Tony Shepherd (Ledger, et al.), and he ran some kind of charity. Parnassus later plays a kind of trick on Tony to make it seem he'd learned his name in some mystical way, for no apparent reason other than so everyone could start using his real name, even though Tony continued pretending to have amnesia to hide his secret.
Eventually Parnassus gets back to the story he was telling Valentina. He fell in love with a woman but he was too old, so Mr. Nick granted him youth and new powers (and mortality). But once again the story is interrupted. Meanwhile, Tony takes the show in a new direction, which improves business as well as helping Parnassus win souls. And we finally see Tony inside the Imaginarium; each time he enters it, he's played by a different actor, and he's surprised to find his face has changed, but both he and anyone else who sees him in the Imaginarium soon gets past that. Anyway, we also finally learn the truth about his secret. And later, Parnassus finally finishes telling the truth to Valentina, about the price he paid for what the Devil had done for him. Which of course upsets her terribly. But anyway, in the final hour, Tony decides to enter the Imaginarium again in the hopes of becoming the fifth soul Parnassus requires to win the bet to save his daughter. But Valentina and Anton enter at the same time, and... well, things get sort of fractured. I don't really want to try to explain any more, or say how it all ends.
So... all that's left is to try to relate my impressions of the film. Um... an interesting story, to be sure. And it had some brilliant, wonderful visuals. And I liked the whole cast quite a bit, as well as the characters they played. The weirdness was all pretty good. I liked the sense that the performers in the travelling show actually had a history together, including the relationship between Parnassus and "Scrumpy"; I definitely believed them as father and daughter, in some of the moments they had together... they were cute. And there was a fair bit of humor in the movie, in addition to the drama and general weirdness. I was, however, bothered by the fact that some things were never really explained to my satisfaction, and there were clearly things it would have been nice to know more about. And the end... well, I don't know. at first it seemed a bit underwhelming to me, in a way, but upon reflection... actually I think it was fairly good. Not perfect, but probably in an odd way better than a perfect ending would have been, if you know what I mean. Because life simply isn't perfect. I do rather feel like one might look for some sort of message in the movie, and maybe you'll find it or maybe you won't. I feel like a lot of the time the movie didn't try hard enough to deliver any clear messages, but rather just gave the impression of implying messages, in a vague way. But whatever... it was still plenty fun to watch, whether it ultimately made much sense or not. I feel like perhaps I had more to say about it all, but... maybe not. In any event, that's all I can think of, now.