The trailers for Doctor Parnassus are clearly aimed at idiots. They explain that writer-director Terry Gilliam’s latest film (like every other fantasy film ever, according to their ads) will take you to a “world beyond your imagination” — just in case you hadn’t realized the dude behind Brazil and Time Bandits is more creative than you are. They remind you in somber tones that this is Heath Ledger’s “final performance” — in case you haven’t figured out how death works. What they don’t tell you is what the hell the movie’s actually about, and with good reason. Knowing the basic plot info going in won’t ruin your experience, but it might make you reconsider buying a ticket.
Parnassus opens with a broken-down sideshow wagon rolling onto a modern London street. The curtain opens, revealing three performers — a guy, Anton (Garfield); a girl, Valentina (Cole); and a dwarf, Percy (Troyer) — all dressed like acrobats in Deadwood’s version of Cirque Du Soleil. A rough-looking crowd of pub-crawlers stops to gawk. The performers begin hawking their wagon’s main attraction — a walk-in “mirror” made by stringing strips of foil over a doorway — and they introduce none other than Dr. P (Plummer), an old man who appears to’ve drunk himself into a coma. Heckling quickly becomes violent, and one hooligan manages to grab Valentina, the doctor’s daughter, and drag her off through the looking glass. Beyond the mirror lies a dark room full of flat stage-prop trees, a room much too large to fit inside the wagon. Valentina slips from the punk’s grasp and disappears into the trees, which are numerous enough to form an enchanted forest. I’ll stop describing this scene here, because it’s probably the most enjoyable part of the entire film and certainly the most visually impressive. Who knew that Gilliam’s distinctive animation style, when translated to high-def CGI, would mostly look like second-rate Dr. Seuss?
The decorated doorway, it’s soon revealed, leads directly into Dr. P’s imagination, where he treats visitors to a world of their own creation, and either a karmic comeuppance or some sort of ego-death-related, vaguely Eastern-ish enlightenment. And, thanks to a deal with “Mr. Nick” (Tom Waits) that ensured his immortality, Parnassus has been helping souls trip pseudo-Buddhist balls to transcendence for thousands of years — long enough, the film strongly implies, for Parnassus to have been Jesus Christ.
But Nick’s about to exact his price for eternal life — the soul of oblivious Valentina — as soon as she reaches her 16th birthday. The doctor’s extremely limited attempts at preventing his daughter’s eternal damnation (most of which involve getting drunk and waiting for it to happen) are complicated by Anton’s poorly disguised feelings for Valentina, and by a mysterious man, Tony (Ledger), whom she discovers hanging underneath a bridge. The man, upon his revival (he’s swallowed a small flute to keep the noose from crushing his windpipe), claims to have amnesia, but Parnassus is sure he’s the devil’s messenger.
If that all sounds unnecessarily complicated, it’s really not too confusing. It’s entirely possible I’m missing some kind of brilliant commentary on spirituality too complex for me to grasp, but I spent the last hour of this movie politely waiting for it to end.
Casting Waits as Lucifer is a brilliant move, of course, but Gilliam seems to be so satisfied with the decision that he didn’t bother to give Waits anything interesting to do or say, leaving him to rasp and leer through scenes, looking like he wandered in from the set of a much cooler movie by mistake. Plummer and Ledger are also wasted. Parnassus, the alcoholic yogi past his prime, is a potentially great character, but he’s underdeveloped and inessential to his own story. The script requires Ledger to remain an amorphous clay lump until the climax, so Tony’s dominant trait for most of the film is his blatant sexual attraction to Valentina, who’s still a few days shy of her 16th birthday. When he’s eventually replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, it hardly matters, and it only gets progressively skeezier. — Jeremy Martin