No matter what happens, everything works out in the end. That’s one of the (albeit minor) themes of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” and it also happens to apply to how the film itself managed to reach the finish line. The death of star Heath Ledger was an awful blow, but it just so happened that he had completed all (or nearly all) of the scenes of his character in the real world, so it wasn’t a stretch to enlist Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law to play the role in Parnassus’ fanciful Imaginarium. It works quite well, and someday audiences unfamiliar with Ledger’s fate probably won’t think twice about it, since other characters also change when they pass through the magic mirror.
That mirror is the heart of Dr. Parnassus’ stage show, a relic from the past that meanders through modern-day London and sets up shop outside bars and other places of ill repute. Director Terry Gilliam establishes that juxtaposition in the first scene, with Parnassus attempting to lure drunks into his mirror, on the other side of which they can choose between the rough road to spiritual enlightenment or the easy path to more vices. Parnassus notches one soul in his belt for the former, while Mr. Nick, the Devil personified, gets one for the latter. It’s not hard to imagine what most people choose.
As the film begins, however, Parnassus has a more pressing matter on his mind. In exchange for a chance on love, he made a deal with Mr. Nick: he would hand over his daughter Valentina on her sixteenth birthday. Her sweet sixteen is only three days away, and Parnassus doesn’t know how he will wiggle out of the bargain. Mr. Nick, however, offers a new bet: the first one to win five souls gets Valentina.
A glimmer of hope then arrives in the form of Tony, a disgraced philanthropist played by Ledger. He encourages the troupe to adopt a more modern approach, and, aided by Tony’s charismatic carnival barking skills, Parnassus quickly scoops up four souls. Tony accompanies people through the mirror, where Depp, Farrell, and Law admirably step in to play the character, who guides people toward the enlightened choice. Unfortunately, Tony is also being pursued by four Russian mobsters, and soon the new bet is tied at four souls apiece.
As the story heads into act three, it doesn’t offer up the kind of race to the finish that you might expect, but if that’s what you were looking for, you probably haven’t seen many Gilliam movies. Many critics have described “Imaginarium” as a return to form for Gilliam, and, yes, that’s a good way to put it. The film is full of his dada-esque imagery and Big Ideas, both of which counterbalance a plot that’s not as tight as it could be. It’s not one of those movies where you want to start questioning characters’ motivations too much, because you’ll find yourself pointing out a bunch of plot holes large and small. The characters are mere sketches, but the key performances are larger-than-life, and the way all the elements hang together, you find yourself relaxing and going along for the ride. That’s quintessential Gillliam.
This DVD release is packed, despite it containing just one disc. We get one deleted scene and Ledger’s wardrobe test, both with optional Gilliam commentary. We also have several micro-featurettes that run seven minutes or less: “Behind the Mirror,” which discusses the film’s origins; “Building the Monastery,” which delves into the creation of the monastery where Dr. Parnassus first met Mr. Nick; “The Art of Dr. Parnassus,” in which Gilliam shows off his concept art; a montage of red carpet walks from various “Parnassus” film premieres; and a presentation of the cast and crew for a premiere audience. We also get a three-minute audio interview that Ledger did before he died; it plays over film stills and on-set photos.
Finally, Gilliam provides a commentary track for the movie. Many DVD commentary tracks tend to be forgettable, but this one is worth a listen as Gilliam talks about everything from Ledger to his issues with critics who he felt didn’t understand the film to many of the other difficulties that beset the production. His commentary tracks tend to be entertaining, and this is one of the better ones.