Maybe chalk it up to a folly of the digital age, but seeing Gilliam, who animated the charming collage sequences for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" way back when, and crafted the practical models, sets, and effects for "Brazil," resort to CGI feels flat out lazy. The truth is that the physical set design for Dr. Parnassus' circus trailer, a sort of large scale pop-up book, is far more imaginative than the world that exists on the other side of his magic mirror. These dreamscapes generally feel empty, with giant, computer-generated symbols of their visitor's subconscious floating desolately in a brightly colored vacuum. The environments lack tactility, giving everything the rounded, plastic look of recent Tim Burton films. Really the only thing that would have made the sequences interesting would be to have seen them achieved practically.
But what really makes "Parnassus" a disappointment is its plot, which begins subtle, minimalistic, and intriguing, and spirals into talky, convoluted, and boring. Gilliam structures the script not in the traditional arc, but rather in an upside-down pyramid, piling layer upon layer until the story can't help but topple. To begin, there's the traveling imaginarium, run by the titular Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his barker Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer). Then there's a romance between Valentina and Anton. Then Parnassus makes a wager with the devil (Tom Waits, in a standout performance). Then the gang comes upon the amnesiac Tony (Heath Ledger--though Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell complete his unfinished scenes). And that's only the first forty minutes. The plot lines coalesce into a volatile stew, eventually boiling to a fever pitch that all but sinks the movie.
As with even the greatest of Gilliam's failures, however, "Parnassus" offers something unexpected, which in itself can't be undervalued. The director's sense of ironic timing and bourgeois satire is still very much intact, and setting the film in present-day England makes for an often striking juxtaposition of skyscrapers, supermarkets, and sideshow chic. Gilliam opens strong, with a raucous fight scene between adolescent drunkards and the mysterious imaginarium crew. Unfortunately, the more he tells us about the characters, the less interesting they become.
The end result is a film that will be fortunate to find an appreciative audience. There were a few walk-outs during the screening I attended, and I honestly couldn't cast much blame. "Parnassus" is a film to recommend to Gilliam fans alone, only some of whom will likely come away with a positive impression. Like with 2005's "Tideland," the director alienates viewers from inception through his defiant strangeness, which is a welcome and unique trait compared with the marginal creativity of Blockbuster X, but only when backed by assured storytelling. Gilliam's writing has never been his strong suit, but his last two films in particular have felt under and overwritten, respectively.
It's tough to beat up on Gilliam though, whose repeated misfortunes and singular artistic voice make him a compelling underdog, and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" should not be outright dismissed for the risks it takes and successes it enjoys, equal as they may be to its failures. It's not brilliant, but it's different. And for some, that'll be enough.