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Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus looks firstly at an old storytelling trope, the power of stories, but follows this with a newer twist, by revealing their fragility as well. That’s the part of which no one likes to be reminded. Parnassus is introduced to the film in his tiny, outdated traveling show, pathetically attempting to enthrall drunken louts. His methods are horribly outdated but Parnassus plods on, selling the same old story that no one wants to hear. The existence of he and his crew is dreary, barely making enough to eat, unable and unwilling on his part to make any updates to the show. Parnassus drinks away his fears most of the day, sometimes unable to perform at all. One fear is losing anymore souls in his longtime bets with Mr. Nick, Tom Waits standing in for the Devil. A purveyor of flesh, gambling and general vice, Mr. Nick draws in souls faster than Parnassus’ stories of salvation can pull them back. Another is the impending 16th birthday of his daughter, Valentina, upon which he loses her to Nick per another old bet. All looks dire until they discover an amnesiac (Ledger) hanging by his neck under a bridge and rescue him. He slowly finds his bearings among the family and starts to charge the show with life, convincing Parnassus to finally update and move to better locales. They take in more money and salvage more souls through his showy conning, drawing Mr. Nick to counter with the Ledger’s old life coming to light, which isn’t pretty for any of them. A long series of escapes into fantasy bring the slightly convoluted plot to a conclusion of the game between Parnassus and Nick, settling all of the bets between them and leaving Parnassus a very old and very tired man.

All of the cast are quite good. Plummer’s Parnassus is the picture of a life too long dragged out, weariness in every breath and no respite of death in the cards. Lily Cole as Valentina was particularly good as the girl trying desperately to grow up under his pressure to adhere to their gypsy way of life when her dreams are of designer furniture in slick magazines. Heath Ledger pulls off charming the paying ladies well and making his way into a close-knit family that needs someone new to breathe life into it. He cannot take all the credit, though, as the role ends up being masterfully fleshed out by his other three faces, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Collin Farrell, all of whom bring something to the character’s depth. Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer both hold up their parts of the family unit, and Tom Waits is his usual self, menacing and amusing in the same breath.

Visually the film is incredible, not that you would expect anything less of Gilliam. The last half of the film and its fantasy landscapes and settings look beautiful. Fantasy comes brilliantly to life, contrastingly perfectly against the dingy rags of costumes the group must wear even when not performing. The clean, saturated world would easily draw in most, especially a 16 year old, over their normal surrounding.

The main weakness in the film is in the themes and their presentation. Mr. Nick lures people away with baseness of mostly the Seven Deadly Sins but that’s it. No consequences are show, just pat choice between good and evil. It all seems a little too simple for a contest for souls. As Parnassus laments toward the end, “No more choice, please no more choices.” And given how little is in the film upon which to bas these choices and the consequences implied, it’s a hell of a lot to expect them to be made so simply. What is the “light” to which they are supposed to climb? It turns out not to be heaven in the climax. And is hell just a bowler-shaped tavern? It all felt overly complicated and overly simplified in the same moment, not relaying much of a message either way. Their seemed to be no higher purpose in it than not to be blown to smithereens, though this made a fantastic image more than once. In the end I was left with a feeling that Gilliam and crew put much more effort into this film that they could ever possibly have gotten in return. Still, as a fantasy allegory, Dr. Parnassus works and is a joy to watch. 3 ½ stars

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