Gilliam's latest madhouse adventure has already suffered nearly two years of infamy because of star Heath Ledger's sudden death halfway through production. Gilliam, who's had more than his fair share of challenges getting his films made and released over the years, creatively salvaged his project by casting Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell as alter egos for Ledger in several lengthy "through the looking glass" scenes. Amidst all the behind-the-scenes drama, it's easy to forget that there is an actual movie to watch – one with a story that has nothing to do with Ledger's death (even if the late actor first appears in Parnassus hanging by his neck from a bridge).
We open with a scene of a 19th century carnival wagon pulling into contemporary London. A disheveled quartet of circus performers, led by the titular "doctor" (Christopher Plummer, as ever an old pro), attempts to entertain smatterings of drunken louts with a colorful but outdated sideshow act. Most ignore the spectacle; others hurl bottles and crash the stage. It's a thinly-veiled metaphor for Gilliam's own struggles to get his work seen and appreciated, but Parnassus has no time to wallow in self-pity. The story soon kicks in when the troupe saves Ledger's character, the president of a children's charity who has a murky past and apparent amnesia, and he agrees to assist Parnassus in a race against the Devil himself (played by a dapper Tom Waits) to collect five souls in exchange for Parnassus' teenage daughter (Lily Cole).
Early in the story, Parnassus explains to a police officer, "Don't worry if it doesn't make sense at first," and that's sage advice for watching this film. Actually, Parnassus isn't too hard to follow, even with the casting changes and the elaborate fantasy sequences, though its story does have several layers of complexity, character, and darkness. If it feels like a return to form for Gilliam – at least for those who feel his best work was in the 1980s – it's because he wrote the script with his old collaborator, the elusive Charles McKeown, who cowrote Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. And indeed, Parnassus is reminiscent of much of Gilliam's past work, with moments that recall Munchausen as well as The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and even Gilliam's old Monty Python animations. Which is to say that it should satisfy most of the director's fans even if it perplexes more mainstream audiences.
It's not perfect: costar Verne "Mini Me" Troyer is simply not a good actor, but ironically it is Ledger who is often the weakest link, not because his acting is poor (it's never poor) but because Gilliam apparently allowed him to improvise his dialogue in several scenes, resulting in a lot of "y'knows" and flat moments. A bad decision, as the film is consistently stronger when the cast sticks to the script. But this is a small complaint.
Parnassus is truly unique – a strange tale of guilt, death, immortality, aging, chance, storytelling, and revenge, and one of the few films out there that uses digital effects for artistic purposes, rather than just to concoct imaginary characters or hide the strings. Some will adore this film. Some will hate it. No surprise for a Terry Gilliam picture, or for any true work of art.