It’s hard to bear much ill will toward Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, given that it was thrown into a state of disarray when Heath Ledger passed away last year, with much but not all of the film complete. Nevertheless, the movie doesn’t really work, apart from the gobsmacked reaction elicited by a small handful of vividly imagined set pieces. A fantastical morality tale set in a grubby present day of Gilliam’s twisted devising, it sort of ambles along, like a scavenger hunt with an ill-defined search list, before collapsing in on itself in a finale of utter inconsequentiality.
Blessed with the extraordinary gift of guiding the imaginations of others, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is also a drunk and inveterate gambler who, thousands of years ago, made a series of bets with the devil (Tom Waits) in which he first won immortality but later lost his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), once she reached her 16th birthday. Desperate to protect her from her impending fate, Dr. Parnassus again renegotiates the wager, with the winner now being determined by whoever first collects five souls. Parnassus and his traveling theater show companions (Verne Troyer, Andrew Garfield) happen upon an amnesia-stricken stranger, Tony (Ledger), and together they set out to woo a quintet of well-heeled ladies into willingly crossing over to the other side. More trippiness then ensues.
Rather disconcertingly, Ledger’s first appearance on screen comes with Tony hanging by his heck from a bridge. Ledger is later replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in three discrete fantasy sequences within the mirrored world that constitutes Parnassus’ playground, and this “fix” actually works well within the narrative. The story, though, has no innate emotional pull. There’s some sly fun to be had with the notion of a devil who so enjoys interacting in needling fashion with the strong-willed on Earth that he habitually indulges a gambling jones. But this narrative strand, and many others of fleeting intrigue, is quixotically embraced and discarded by the director and his writing partner, Charles McKeown. No one does cracked-world visuals quite like Gilliam, but he’s at his best when he has a strong producer sitting on him, or more strongly defined source material, and neither of these are the case with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. There are moments of fitful wonder here, but they are few and far between; overall, score it an “I,” for Incomplete. (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13, 122 minutes)