I wonder if it is possible to simply watch Dr. Parnassus as a movie, minus all the subtext and circumstance that surrounds it. I know it wasn’t possible for me. Perhaps in twenty years, someone will pop this in the 3D hologram machine, and at the end, wonder what all the fuss is about. Because as a movie, it’s pretty minor, pretty flawed, and pretty strange. It comes from the Island of Misfit Toys; it’s the kind of movie you love–or at least feel affection, and perhaps pity, for– because of its flaws, not in spite of them.
“Parnassus” is about a wizard/mystic/sage/entertainer(Christopher Plummer) who is able to offer people entrance into their own imaginary worlds. Unfortunately, he does so through a gift-wrap paper looking glass that is part of a shabby travelling show, so very few people give him a second look or bother to sample what he is offering. He, his daughter(Lily Cole) the requisite dwarf (Verne Troyer, predictably awful) and a stage hand (Andrew Garfield) live in poverty, stealing more meals than they earn, in spite of possessing what must be considered the Most Amazing Show on Earth.
Now parallel that to director Terry Gilliam’s career. For thirty years, since his days with Monty Python, Gilliam has made some of the most original, creative, and unique films out there. Almost all of them have been box office failures. Some of them, like “Brazil” and “Twelve Monkeys, and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” have attained cult status. Gilliam ought to be spoken of in the same breath as directors like Tim Burton, Henry Selick, maybe even David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro, but he isn’t. He’s the outsider amongst the outsider, the shabby, rambling showman who has something incredible to show you, if you’d just slow down on your way to the latest ruination of “Alice in Wonderland” to see it. He is Dr. Parnassus.
And you’ve probably heard that “Parnassus” is Heath Ledger’s last film; he died while it was still being shot, and there was some question as to whether it would be finished at all. Ledger plays a stranger the troupe finds one night hanging from a bridge; he ought to be dead but isn’t. He has amnesia, or maybe he doesn’t, and thus can’t remember who he is or where he came from, except maybe he can, and doesn’t want to. He joins the troupe and attempts to modernize their approach, which as mentioned before, is badly needed. Ledger finished filming all of the scenes outside of the magical Imaginarium. And then he died.
What follows is perhaps the most heart-breaking, beautiful and memorable tributes in movie history. To finish his final film, Ledger’s friends sub in for him. Johnny Depp takes a turn, then Jude Law, and finally Colin Farrell (rumor has it that Tom Cruise wanted a shot, but Gilliam turned him down, because Ledger didn’t know him personally.) This works, mostly, because they are inside the Imaginarium; the rules are different. It works, supremely, because it makes “Parnassus” feel less like a piece of entertainment and more like a labor of love. Ledger’s friends carry him across the finish line, and the movie is made. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you are made of stone.
The plot involves a deal that Parnassus has made with the devil (played, with relish and appropriate scenery-chewing, by Tom Waits) involving his beautiful daughter. As I watched this bearded wizard scramble to escape the devil, make a new deal, beg, borrow or steal his way out of it, again my thoughts turn to Gilliam. He’s not a young man anymore, and it must grow harder and harder to find people willing to finance the movies he wants to make. At what point must the travelling show come to an end, the child of his heart be sold to the highest bidder, and this wonderfully imaginative director start churning out Cameron-esque moneymakers? I hope there’s still a few ticks on the clock for him.