(Sony Classics) Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare, Richard Riddell, Katie Lyons, Paloma Faith, Daniel Newman. Directed by Terry Gilliam
We all have out price, a weakness that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. However, keep in mind that when you make a deal with the devil, the consequences are almost always not what you expect them to be and the devil never gets the short end of the bargain.
Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) was once a humble monk of an order whose mission was to tell the story of the universe. They believed that as long as the story was being told, the universe would continue. The devil (Waits), or Mr. Nick as he prefers to be called, tries to disabuse Parnassus of the notion but is unsuccessful.
The devil, as we all know, is a bettin’ man and he wagers Doctor Parnassus that he can gather twelve disciples before Parnassus can with immortality the prize if Parnassus wins, which he does – although later he discovers that the wager was a trap and immortality not something wonderful, but a burden and a torture.
When Parnassus falls in love with a mortal woman, the devil allows Parnassus to adjust the bargain. The devil will make Parnassus young and mortal again in exchange for the soul of his firstborn daughter on her 16th birthday. Parnassus thinks he can trick the devil by not having any children but to his horror his wife becomes pregnant when she turns 60, dying in childbirth.
Valentina (Cole) knows nothing of this; she thinks her dad is an imaginative man who drinks too much. She is part of his traveling show along with the cautiously optimistic Anton (Garfield) who acts as a barker, and Percy (Troyer), the show’s all-around handyman and designated little person.
Valentina is three days short of her 16th birthday and Parnassus is getting desperate. The devil has been popping up to taunt the old man but eventually offers a new wager – the first one to gather five souls wins, with Valentina’s soul being the prize.
The troupe comes across a man hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge in London with strange symbols written on his forehead. They rescue him despite the misgivings of Parnassus and Percy, only to discover he has no memory of who he is. Using arcane means, Parnassus discovers his name is Tony and that he once worked for a children’s charity.
The travelling show has not had many paying customers but Tony’s ideas to modernize the production and going to more upscale locations pays off. Doing so helps to bring in several people to be given a choice between doing the right thing and the easy thing – between the high road and the low road. This is done by entering Parnassus’ magic mirror, behind which is a fantasy landscape determined by the imagination of the person entering it. Inside the mirror, even the appearance of people changes. However, the clock is ticking and the devil is a persuasive man. Can Parnassus and Tony save Valentina by collecting five souls before time runs out?
Gilliam never fails to amaze. His movies are visual symphonies of the imagination, full of wonder and visual style. His storytelling can be all over the map, but if you are willing to let the film wash over you and absorb you, the sins of the filmmaker can be overcome.
One of the conceits of the tale is that those who enter the mirror must face a choice and indeed Gilliam had to face one of his own. Halfway through filming (with all of the exterior London scenes shot), his star Heath Ledger tragically passed away. Gilliam could either completely scrap the film (which he did once before with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote which ironically enough he is putting on film once again with cameras rolling this spring) or rewrite the script entirely. He and longtime writing partner Charles McKeown came up with the brilliant idea of changing the appearance of Tony inside the Imaginarium. Depp, Law and Farrell, all friends of Ledger, answered the call and would each play a different aspect of Tony inside various scenes in the mirror. Gilliam doesn’t bother to explain it other than with a few puzzled looks on the part of the actor playing Tony at the moment, and it works marvelously.
Ledger was on a roll after his career-making work as the Joker in The Dark Knight and this would have been, I suspect, another triumph for him had he lived. In his truncated role he is marvelous, playing a man with a great number of skeletons in his closet but with a great deal of charm. While Tony isn’t a villain per se, there is a villain inside him and while some might compare the part to the Joker, the two roles are quite different.
Plummer might be easy to overlook as Parnassus but that would be a mistake. The veteran actor turns in a marvelous performance as the tormented milleniumarian (is that even a word?) who salves his torment with drink. Garfield and Cole are very attractive in non-standard ways; I liked Garfield a great deal and with a bit of luck he could have a nice career ahead of him.
I was surprised by how well Troyer did here. Recently he has mostly been known for his appearances on VH1 reality shows that have shown him in a less than flattering light, but he does the best work of his career here. I hope that he gets some more roles of this kind after this. I’d also like to point out that Tom Waits makes a lovely Beelzebub (he has assumed the role in music videos for his own songs in the past). I’ve always been a big Tom Waits fan and any excuse to see him in a movie is all right by me.
The look of the film is rather rundown and grimy, what the Brits might call “a bit dodgy” which befits the disreputable Doctor himself. There is an almost Victorian feel to the show and the Imaginarium which, while not new to film, at least has a striking visual element all its own.
This won’t be remembered as a testament to Heath Ledger’s sadly short career (The Dark Knight will be) but this is a terrific film on its own merits. Morality plays, which this certainly is, are not as common now as they used to be, but in these shady times we could use more of them. When times are hard, the devil holds sway and we can use a Doctor Parnassus to show us the way to the high road.
REASONS TO GO: Terry Gilliam seems incapable of making an uninteresting film. Fine performances by Ledger, Plummer, Waits, Garfield and – surprise! – Troyer. Imaginative images abound in this film.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the visuals are too overwhelming. A definite Eww! factor when the supposedly 16-year-old Valentina has sex with a much older man.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, depictions of teen smoking and some sensuality. Might be a little much for younger kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Depp, Law and Farrell donated the money they made from the movie to Ledger’s daughter Matilda so that she may be secure in her economic future.
HOME OR THEATER: Definitely one to see in a theater if you can find one showing it. It is certainly worth the effort to seek it out.
FINAL RATING: 8/10