Early in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," the titular mystical showman advises an onlooker, "Don't worry if you don't understand it all immediately." Good advice for the paying customers of Terry Gilliam's latest phantasmagoria, who probably won't understand it all even by the time the credits roll.
Such narrative obscurity can be part of the charm of a Gilliam film. The Monty Python alumnus earned his cinematic cred with such wild rides as "Time Bandits," "Brazil," "Twelve Monkeys" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," the closest screen relative to "Parnassus." Like "Munchausen," "Parnassus" is a thinly veiled self-portrait of the artist as an old man. Locked with the Devil (Tom Waits) in a centuries-long struggle for human souls, the unhappily immortal Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) tells his ruthless foe, "You can't stop stories being told."
But perhaps a greater threat than the Devil -- aka Mr. Nick -- is postmodern apathy. What place do old-fashioned storytelling and theatrical wonder have in a modern world crowded with flashy consumerism and brainwashing handheld electronics?
Helping Parnassus put on his greatest show on Earth is an itinerant troupe of actors: diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer) and ingenues Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Valentina (breathtaking beauty Lily Cole). The latter is Parnassus' daughter, just about to turn what Mr. Nick lasciviously refers to as "Sweet 16 -- the age of consent."
Mr. Nick's excitement stems from a long-ago deal made with Parnassus for Valentina's soul, a deal set to close on her birthday. As if matters weren't complicated enough, the troupe saves a man hanging under London's Blackfriars bridge (the same spot where Vatican banker Roberto Calvi was found dead and dangling). This Tarot-styled "Hanged Man" is Tony, and the Oscar-winning actor who plays him -- Heath Ledger -- has since died in real life.
Once past their own ghoulish associations, audiences can settle in for a surprisingly satisfying swan song from Ledger. The star's second collaboration with Gilliam (the first being "The Brothers Grimm") again displays a fun-lovingly game energy, as Ledger bounds and tongue-lashes his way through physical and verbal gymnastics. Equally magnetic are Plummer, giving a grand old-lion performance as a force of good that's more than 1,000 years old, and gravelly voiced musical artist Waits, who clearly relishes the vaudevillian opportunity to draw on a pencil moustache, don a bowler hat and sneer.
Though "Parnassus" has a decidedly more homemade feel (even in its copious use of CGI), Gilliam's film easily gives the ultra-expensive "Avatar" serious competition for the most visually arresting film of 2009.The dizzying special-effects sequences that unfold on the other side of a magic mirror are triumphs of the imagination, not least because Ledger -- who died before he could film these scenes -- transforms first into Johnny Depp, then Jude Law and finally Colin Farrell. All of them honor Ledger while bringing to the party their own distinct charms.
Endearingly packed to the rafters with ornate anachronistic artistry, Gilliam's "Imaginarium" is a great place to window shop -- and get lost for a spell.