Okay, let's get the major issues out of the way: No, ... Parnassus is not former Python Terry Gilliam's best film - that honour is reserved for Brazil, Orwell's 1984 via German Expressionism -, nor is it the late Heath Ledger's defining performance - whether you prefer Brokeback's closeted cowboy or the anarchic philosophising of his Joker in The Dark Knight, both are, in my opinion, far more notable. Nonetheless, if you're not looking for an instant classic, the masterpiece of a fantastical, often controversial director, or the swan song of a brilliant young actor, then there's plenty here to enjoy.
The eponymous Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal mystic turned jaded alcoholic, tours the shadowy backstreets and bleak docksides of modern-day London with his travelling show, the eponymous Imaginarium. His troupe is comprised of the truculent, if diminutive, Percy (Verne Troyer), the puppyish Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Parnassus' daughter, the elfin but passionate Valentina (Lily Cole). However, her sixteenth birthday is rapidly approaching, at which point her soul, unbeknownst to any but her father, is forfeit to the gravel-throated, pencil-mustached Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in payment for her father's Faustian deal.
While it's the Imaginarium itself that has generated the most hype, the magical world powered by Parnassus, in which your imagination takes corporeal form, is less impressive that the "real world" London setting. A budget of $45 million is simply not enough to bring to life all that Gilliam might have hoped for. You can't, however, fault Gilliam for trying: if the inside of his head looks anything like one of his hallucinogenic dreamscapes, it deserves a starring role in a show such as this. Indeed, the travelling circus is occasionally reminiscent of an earlier flying one, possessing the same brand of madcap wit and knack for abstract symbolism. It's the atmospherically gloomy London to which one feels a connection - here events feel truer, more honest - and it's here that we first meet the enigmatic Tony (Ledger) under circumstances I won't spoil.
Apologies for having taken so long to get around to arguably Parnassus' greatest draw, but it's some half an hour into the film before the de facto lead makes his first appearance. He's charming, if sleazy; a loveable Cockney vagabond hiding a dark secret, albeit one more Tom Wolfe than Dickens. Ledger is charismatic and engaging in the role, but never more than that. His London accent, though at least marginally convincing, may be to close to comfort to Ledger's native Australian, which occasionally threatens to break through. Thankfully, though, despite rumours to the contrary, he's present for almost half the film's in terms of screen time; for those who, like men, want to squeeze out every remaining in-character moment of a man who might well enter into cinematic legend.
On which note, to draw further, if inevitable, comparisons, if Brokeback Mountain was his East of Eden, Dark Knight his Rebel Without A Cause, then Parnassus is Heath Ledger's Giant: a burgeoning epic full of interesting, flawed characters, a deeply thematic piece but one in which the players seem more like ciphers than human beings. As soon as the cast pass literally through the magic mirror, it becomes difficult to focus on the reality of their situation, quite simply because of the lack thereof. Despite this, it's the alternate faces and personas that Tony presents when he passes into the Imaginarium - necessitated by Ledger's death mid filming - that arguably provide the most genuine view of the chameleonic Tony, as well as giving the film some additional subtext weight in terms of discussing, however fitfully, the nature of our private and public selves.
Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all apparently close friends of Ledgers, bring much of "themselves" to the various incarnations of Tony: it's possible to recognise the wide-eyed otherworldliness of Jack Sparrow, the boyish exuberance of Alfie, the darkly-accented posturing of In Bruges' Ray. Accumulatively, they make up much of the film, but individually their "cameos" rely significantly upon type. There is some irony that, even as Gilliam elegises on the death of imagination through the figure of Parnassus, that he should indulge so much in celebrity and artificiality.
Parnassus is evidently a labor of love, a testament to artistic integrity, but is ultimately too loose in its affections. The story is convoluted and obtuse, the characters flighty and unpredictable, and there is an over-reliance on set pieces, which serve too often as plot devices. Plummer plays his familiar plummy rascal to great aplomb (not a world away from his award winning performance in Beginners) and Waits is incandescent as the chain-smoking, bowler-hatted, adjective-rich Devil. Both, however, are all-too evidently allegoric of Gilliam's battle against the studio system. Cole is fey and lovely as Valentina and Garfield awkwardly heroic as her would-be love interest (with Spiderman still three years off); Troyer, meanwhile, is an acidulous Sancho Panza to Parnassus' Don Quixote.
Ironically, the problem at hand is an overabundance of imagination, an expression of all the director's thwarted desires - failed projects or unrealised dreams in general -; it's a big, crass, polished mess of a movie. Even so, I left the cinema with a sense of wonderment at its sheer ambition and days (indeed years later) I'm still thinking about it, which suggests a certain power in the film's audacity. Though rambling and indulgent, Parnassus is nevertheless a memorable piece of cinema and never less than watchable for all its many foibles.
Rating: Three and three quarter stars.
(Written Two Weeks Later)
Okay, this has got a little weird. I've just seen Parnassus again, and I think, in the intervening time, it might have improved. In fact, my earlier opinion, that it was entertainment masquerading as art, has done a one-eighty. Or possibly a five-forty. In any case, there was spinning involved and now I don't know which way is up.
Taking a seat without my customary snacks, I wasn't particularly sure I wanted to spend another two plus hours in the company of Parnassus and his troupe quite so soon. However, as the film progressed, I found that, in my detached state of mind, I enjoyed it - at least appreciated it - a lot more than the first time through. For one thing, when viewed entirely as allegory, the film functions a whole lot better.
It is the story of the struggle between good and evil, but also artistic integrity and commercial necessity. Everything has subtextual meaning. Parnassus is God and yet still Gilliam, who is himself Don Quixote. Mr. Nick is The Devil, who represents the studio system as well as the forces of reality. The whole cast are less characters than pieces being moved around a huge transdimensional chess board.
The trick is, I think, to accept this fact from the offset. Gilliam is nothing if not a storyteller and, as with most classic tales, the narrative is meaningless without the underlying metaphor: Parnassus is, simply put, a parable. Admittedly, the film is complex enough without this in mind, but it's fascinating to try and keep track of the thematic developments.
Anyway, this leaves me with pretty much no criteria by which to determine how "good" Gilliam's latest effort is as a work of cinema. It is, like Tony, a blend of poet and charlatan, denying any attempt to label it. Whether that's laudable or deplorable, I cannot tell; it's neither here nor there. As such, I hope you will take my revised rating as intended and consider maybe hiring Brazil as well/instead.
Rating: Three and three quarter stars and a pineapple.