Terry Gilliam’s latest fantasy exploration is as good as anything he’s done, and as sloppy and patchwork as well. It’s not all his fault – as most folks know, Heath Ledger died halfway through production and Gilliam had to rewrite the film and bring in other actors to complete Ledger’s role (the three actors play fantasy visions of the character and it’s a fine solution) – but it’s also just the way he makes films, especially those he writes himself.
You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.
There has always been a dark, at times fatal streak, in Terry Gilliam’s fantasies and this enigmatic through the looking glass odyssey suggests that surrendering oneself to imagination and creativity and storytelling—and the responsibilities that comes with it—is dangerous business. Gilliam should know.