A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
The motto of Second City is "Something Wonderful Right Away," and maybe Terry Gilliam has the words displayed on his mirror when he shaves every morning. He has never faltered. "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" could be seen as a sideshow version of his own life, with him playing the role of the pitchman who lures you into his fantasies. That they may seem extravagant and overheated, all smoke and mirrors, is, after all, in their very nature.
The story in Gilliam's fevered film is all over the map, as usual, but this time there's a reason. His wild inventions in character, costumes and CGI effects are accounted for by a plot that requires revolving worlds. Elements of this plot were made necessary by the death of Heath Ledger halfway into the filming, but the plot itself I think was in place from the first.
It involves a bizarre, threadbare traveling show that unfolds out of a rickety old wagon in rundown pockets of London occupied mostly by drunks and grotesques. The show consists of the (very, very) old Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) perching ominously on a stool while his barker, Anton (Andrew Garfield); his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), and his angry dwarf, Percy (Verne Troyer), perform for an unruly handful of lager louts.
Percy and Anton save the life of a man hanging from a bridge. Why only they can perform this task is wisely not explained. The man on the rope is Tony (Heath Ledger). I know. He joins the show, is appalled by its archaic form and suggests updates. The reason it's creaky is that Parnassus is many centuries old, having made a pact with Satan (Tom Waits, as usual) to live forever on condition that Satan can possess Valentina (Lily Cole) when she turns 16. You have to admit Parnassus didn't rush into reproduction. Of course he wants out of the deal. Satan frequently runs into credit payment risks.