The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Most Nauseating Ride of the Year


Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer

By Robert Patrick

Terry Gilliam is a madhatter. Plain and simple. The old director likes his movies strange, maniacal and full of the broodiest whimsy fathomable. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not atypical of Gilliam’s manic prose; the film is aplomb with macabre absurdities and cartoonish characters that, at their most foolish, look like the type of drawings that cult-illustrator Harvey Peker would feverishly doodle. The plot of Imaginarium is a kaleidoscope of smoke and mirrors, marred realities, and baffling dream sequences. You’ll likely end up feeling like the heel in the end; most of the movie spins and weaves like a drunken magician, hellbent on clumsily showing off his tricks, while fumbling the set-up. The movie looks impressive, while still feeling about as appealing as a used syringe.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an old man, cloaked by caked on make-up and a smokey beard, who props himself up on a retractable stage in a nondescript city (New York? Chicago? Gotham?). Parnassus looks like the wily old man from those Kansas albums. He is surrounded by minstrels, dressed in flowery garments, who shower passerby’s with orations about Parnassus’ fabled abilities. The whole thing is a little reminiscent of La Strada, save for a more hallucinatory reintroduction to what a pauper’s sideshow could look like if dressed in impossibly impressive – and unlikely – props. The aforementioned stage is positioned outside, in a dirty street, near some slummy looking bars. The patrons, of course, stagger out, disrespectfully accost the street performers, then fall into another world – namely in the mind of Doctor Parnassus – where strange, bewildering events transpire. Yeah, this film makes “Brazil” look like “Capote”.

One particular man, named Tony (Heath Ledger), is saved by the motley crew of magical performers, and becomes the mantelpiece of their eerie theatrics when he joins the traveling circus. Because he can traverse between the fantastic world of Parnassus and the dreary, trash floating world of reality, Tony becomes a kind of makeshift messiah for the group. Confused yet? It doesn’t really matter.

The daughter of Parnassus is Valentina (Lily Cole), a doll-faced teenager whose primary talent is dressing in Victorian era clothing and wooing onlookers with her powder-puffed cheeks. She falls in love with Tony, to the chagrin of some of the performers, and thus begins a weird, volatile affair.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a phantasmagoria of strange creatures, kooky visuals, interchangeable actors. Because Ledger’s premature death did not enable him to finish Gilliam’s feature, several actors of note, including Johnny Depp and Jude Law, don eyeshadow and other make-up to portray the mercurial Tony figure. The movie, by no means, is discernible by plot but instead by bombastic imagery. Half of the time rivers are forming menacing heads; giant lily pads are hovering in the air; and macabre looking bars are exploding without context. The thing looks like a Salvador Dali painting being hit by a cream pie. The only reason to watch “Imaginarium” is out of pure curiosity. Think swimming through a lava lamp in slow motion.

I have to admit that I enjoyed Tom Waits as the devil. Waits stammers, sports a maniacal mustache, and wears some pretty wild digs. At times it is easy to admire Gilliam’s directorial madness, as he creates things as chipper and equally dreadful as a Tim Burton project. I suppose if you want to be whisked away into a movie that makes about as much sense as you let it, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

In the end though – and I’m almost sorry to say it – the premise gets a little too smoky and foggy to be enjoyed. I would appreciate these Lynchian visuals if it had been a student film, say from UCLA, by someone who adores fifteen-minute shorts with doll heads and seventy-foot ladders. Am I thrilled by an entire feature with this kind of material? Probably not, no. Everything looks too dirty, too confusing to be properly enjoyed.

Some will be convinced that “Imaginarium” is daring and inventive. I suppose I cannot deny those statements. I will deny, however, that the movie is in the least bit entertaining.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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