As revolutionary as Monty Python was, they never could figure out how to finish a sketch properly. Their best sketches and their worst sketches, and their best and worst movies, shared this common thread. Whether it was a movie or film, the ending was invariably surreal and either unrelated to or structurally unsuggested by what had come before. This holds true for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, rating: 87, a brilliant movie with an awful ending; Life of Brian, rating: 79 a decent movie with a hilariously dark ending; as well as virtually every sketch from the original show. Monty Python animator and filmmaker Terry Gilliam has the same problem with his own movies: he takes audiences down the rabbit hole, but rarely manages to bring them back in one piece. His visual imagination is strong enough for it to be worth the ride, some of the time. But even in the best case, a Terry Gilliam movie never proceeds perfectly from point A to point B.
In this movie, Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, an immortal who gambles with Satan (Tom Waits), attempting to win souls with the power of imagination. His Imaginarium appears to be a carnival sideshow, but it's actually a window into the imagination of whoever enters, allowing Gilliam to indulge his craziness. The death of Heath Ledger, who plays a mysterious man who joins up with Parnassus' crew and upsets their entire world, forced Gilliam to cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell to substitute for Ledger in his Imaginarium scenes, as he died before filming. Some script lines were added so that characters could note the incongruity of his changing face, but it is never much explained, nor does it really matter -- the rest of the plot is insane enough for it to seem perfectly congruous. It turns out that Parnassus's mortal daughter was both the result and the subject of one of the diabolic wagers, and Parnassus must find a way to outwit the devil or lose his daughter to Hell forever. However, as is the case with any Gilliam movie, the end is not quite what you'd expect from the beginning.
Gilliam's movies are generally preoccupied with the notion of storytelling itself. His other movies -- including Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys (rating: 88), about time travel, and The Fisher-King (rating: 73) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, about folk tales -- take various methods of storytelling. His previous movie with Heath Ledger, 2005's muddled The Brothers Grimm, was a fanciful take on two of the greatest storytellers in history. This movie goes even further: it's about a man whose belief in the power of storytelling is so great that he challenges the devil's authority using a carnival sideshow setup. Even the visuals inside his Imaginarium are flat, dioramic, and handmade -- they look more like clay models than the modern CGI world of Avatar, the current cutting edge of cinematic imagination.
It's rather remarkable that someone gave him $45 million, after his $80 million Brothers Grimm bombed horribly. But it's a good thing they did. There's no one who makes movies quite like Terry Gilliam, lyrical, discursive, and deeply strange, but beautiful, idiosyncratic, and utterly unique.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.