There is just something insanely charming about Terry Gilliam's films. Even at some of his worst moments (the rather spastic "The Brothers Grimm") the pure imaginative side of his fantasy elements and its odd relevancy towards the story telling side of the film strikes a rather clever and brilliant side that other filmmakers have desperately tried to copy (cough Tim Burton cough). "The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus" is a pure return to form for the British director in all of his glory. It's everything one expects from his films and does it in a fresh and modern style.
Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) is a thousand year old monk who was blessed/cursed with immortality after he was confronted by a bet with Mr. Nick, aka the Devil (Waits). Now, in this day and age, he travels around London with a sort of vaudevillian theater show that consists of a magician, a small man, and his young 15 year old daughter as they use their talents to allow people to momentarily live out in their imagination. Time is running out on a bet for his daughter with the Devil and in desperation he makes a new bet on who can gather 5 souls to their side by the time she turns 16. With the help of a mysterious new stranger (Ledger, Depp, Law, Farrell - this will be explained in a moment) they may just have a chance to win against the trickery of Mr. Nick.
If you are not familiar with Gilliam's style of writing and directing, then insanity is just 2 hours away. "Imaginarium" fully embraces his style in all of its drugged out glory as he blends fantasy into a realistic world. This film does a slightly better job though at giving us 'reasons' for these elements by having most of the fantasy elements occur in the 'imaginarium' thanks to Parnassus' monk abilities. This allows a great balance of the dreariness of reality to the ridiculousness of the fantasy world in all of its absurdity. It's a grounded (if any of his films can truly be called that) film for Gilliam. It's got a great story about redemption, lies, family, and morality all done with his patented aggressive visual style and dark humor. One of his best in a long time writing wise.
Gilliam is also very talented at building great casts that work with sparked chemistry and bringing out the best of the script and his directing. This is done here in spades with the cast built. Plummer and Waits steal their scenes separately and are riveting to watch together and of course, Ledger brings a solid modern presence to the film nicely. His death during the filming of this picture obviously threw it into whack, but he was replaced for the imagination sequences by the likes of Depp, Law, and Ferrell where they all work out quite well. It also works nicely with the script. The relative unknowns in the film (at the time) Garfield and Cole also strike some brilliant scenes.
It's truly hard to explain one of Gilliam's films especially when he works it as well as "Imaginarium" comes off. This film is more or less an experience to have. It's expertly written (he co-wrote it with previous collaborator on "Baron Munchausen" - also a brilliant film), expertly directed, and expertly acted. My only real complaint is the odd way that the film decided to end. But its a minute issue and nothing that takes away from the majority of the film.
If you are a fan of creative film making that combines great stories and visual brilliance then "Imaginarium" is worth the watch. Be careful though, if you are not used to this style then you'll cry "this is stupid " very quickly and never give the film a chance.
Written By Matt Reifschneider