The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is vintage Terry Gilliam, a pour not to all tastes but one certain to please lovers of Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Kaleidoscope meets calliope in this trippy fantasy set to circus music and among a scruffy family of carny figures who bridge medieval and modern worlds. Doctor Parnassus (the grizzled Christopher Plummer, resembling a cross between prophet and panhandler) is the tale's first ringmaster, an ancient Faust who solicits customers to venture through the looking glass. (Plummer is splendid.)
His Imaginarium, a mobile theater comparable to a magical mystery tour, invites the ticketbuyer to pass through a mirror and take a ride through his or her imagination. These mindscapes, such as one in which a bluehair flies over a mountain range of stylish pumps, have tremendous visual wit.
In a previous life, or perhaps a prelude to his current one, Doctor P made a bet with the Devil (Tom Waits as Mr. Nick) that he would surrender Valentina (Lily Cole), his valentine-faced daughter, on her sweet 16th if he could not up Hell's census by five souls. Valentina's birthday is approaching, thus Doctor P is racing against time and his daughter's raging hormones.
Gilliam's film is a shuffle of dog-eared tarot cards, whimsical, graphic, and not a little sinister. When first the Parnassus clan (doctor, dwarf, daughter, and magician's apprentice) encounter a hustler named Tony (Heath Ledger, whose untimely passing interrupted the making of the film about cheating death), he is swinging from the scaffold like The Hanged Man.
Then he's liberated by Parnassus' helpers, Percy (Verne Troyer) and Anton (Andrew Garfield). Now white-suited, Tony becomes the Imaginarium's ringmaster and barker who helps Parnassus supply souls to Mr. Nick.
The late Ledger, to whom the film is dedicated, died halfway through the production, necessitating a replacement Tony. Gilliam supplies three: Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law - white-suited angels luring unsuspecting Londoners to their demise. Because the movie about Parnassus, the magician struggling to keep alive his magic, is so convoluted, the conceit of the four actors almost makes sense. But it's sometimes hard to track.
Four Tonys; three rivals for Valentina. These are wily Tony, sly Mr. Nick, and earnest Anton, who worships her from so close that she doesn't notice him. Ultimately Gilliam's movie is about the fluidity of time, of personality, of love, and of life.
Still, it's a little bit of a shock to hear Tony declare, "Nothing is permanent, not even death." Ledger's many fans wish this were true, and at least for Imaginarium's two hours and two minutes, it seems to be so.