I got my hopes up for this one. I always thought what Gilliam needed most was a strong script to focus his manic energy, and the previews for Dr. Parnassus featured nothing less than a pact with Satan in the form of a slicked down Tom Waits declaring, "The first to five souls wins!" Seemed like a rock solid premise over which Gilliam could layer his trademark phantasmagoria. Alas, as much as root for Gilliam to succeed, and as much as I want to be transported by the movies, I have to report that Dr. Parnassus is what would charitably be called a disappointment and would more bluntly be called a mess.
Before we get into the details on why, let's first preempt the standard response, that Gilliam's films need not be burdened by the mundane business of story structure and coherence. This line of thinking goes that the screen is his canvas and he should be free to splatter his ideas across it Jackson Pollock-style and worry about making sense of the whole thing in the editing room. The problem with this approach is that images need to be tethered to some idea to have real resonance for the viewer.
There is only the sketchiest answer given to any of these questions. Gilliam barely seems interested in the mechanics of telling a story. All of the interest is in the art direction. Actually, that's not fair. There is a lot of talk about the power of storytelling, temptation and loss and more. But none of it can be said to come together into any kind of point.
At this point I was hooked. The handmade look of the Imaginarium is gorgeous, especially so when plunked down in the middle of modern London. The inside of the Imaginarium starts off with some cool stuff, my favorite being an endless ditch filled with broken beer bottles. And having hooked me, it was at this point that Gilliam proceeded to carefully remove the hook and toss me back out to sea.
The sequence goes on and on piling one wild image onto another until you want to yell to get on with it already. I lost interest around the time the drunk was careening through the giant electric jellyfish. When it came time to do battle for his soul Dr. Parnassus is represented by some vague symbols of enlightenment, pyramids and sunbeams, while the devil is represented by some vague images of debauchery, neon lights and a speakeasy, and the whole thing ends with abrupt randomness. When the sequence is over the audience is left going, "Huh?" when it should be saying, "Wow!"
I would respond that I am only reviewing the film according to the terms that Gilliam himself set out for us. He starts out by promising, "Here is a dazzling story about a pact with the devil," so I think it is entirely fair to point out how alienating it is when Gilliam delivers all of the dazzle and none of the story. I don't question that these are very dear personal visions for him, but he is as taken with flash over substance as a lot of the emptiest Hollywood blockbusters.
As for being ungrateful that is not the case at all. I'm heartened to know there are still guys like Gilliam out there fighting and scraping funds together away from the Hollywood machine. And I don't for a second question his talent. He demonstrates he still has a knack for pulling some extraordinary images out of his hat, a giant shadow dancing across the water is particularly memorable. If Gilliam every got a film firing on all cylinders, script and visuals and performance, he has the abilities to deliver a bona fide classic (Some would argue he done this already with Brazil, but that is an argument for another day.)
In the documentary Lost in La Mancha, about the legendary bout of bad luck that sunk his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, you can see what a dedicated and enthusiastic artist Gilliam is. At one point he giggles like a child watching the guys playing giants lumber towards the camera. Watching the doc I never could get a handle on what exactly the story was supposed to be about - something to do with a business man who time travels into the world of Don Quixote. I figured at the time that I couldn't get a handle on it because the doc was more concerned about the production problems than about explaining the details of the screenplay. If Gilliam ever finally triumphs over the odds to get that film made, I do hope that he spares the time to give that script one more read through and make sure its as in order as the financing.
Verdict: I'm pulling for Gilliam to succeed. He represents a lot of thing we could use more of in the movie business - fearlessness, originality, vision. But audiences show up for a great story not to see someone's imagination shoot off haphazardly in every direction. If he keeps turning out films like the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus mainstream success will continue to elude Gilliam for the rest of his days. 3 out of 10
(Of course the elephant is the room is the death of Heath Ledger before the end of filming. They were right to press on and finish the film and the sacrifices they had to made to get around Ledger's absence are easy to spot, and I've not held them against the film. All the flaws I'm talking about are present in the portions of the film that have nothing to do with Ledger as well as the scenes he clearly finished in their entirety. Ledger is as wonderful here as he ever was here, livening up his every minute of screen time with a charismatic, original performance.)