The basic story: a travelling performance troupe, led by Christopher Plummer’s Parnassus, and comprised of his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) and oldest friend Percy (Verne Troyer), save the life of a mysterious stranger (Ledger) and take him on as an apprentice of sorts. Meanwhile, Parnassus is trying to renegotiate a deal he made with the Devil (Tom Waits), in which he bargained his daughter’s soul in exchange for the chance to marry the woman he loved. Needless to say, at a certain point in Valentina’s life, Parnassus regrets the decision and tries to fix his mistake. And the mysterious stranger obviously isn’t too trustworthy…
Gilliam has always been good at coming up with interesting story ideas. His execution can be less than stellar, though. As with Baron Munchausen, Parnassus suffers from a sluggish, uneven pace, especially in the first hour. Scenes go on too long, and the story takes a bit to really establish itself. We lack any real emotional connection the story or the characters, though we certainly like some of the characters. Likeability isn’t the issue with the characters here: the real problem is we don’t much have much of an emotional investment in them or their fates. This can be attributed to the maddog, wacky-as-can-be type of heedless storytelling Gilliam can be guilty of sometimes. There is no real A to B in this film, and while that can be a beneficial trait, here we find ourselves scratching our heads and hoping for a bit of focus in the narrative. There’s too much wackiness for the sake of wackiness, and it threatens to bog down the film.
Still, the film is magnificently designed and shot. Its production design and visual effects are splendid and top-notch, which is standard for a Gilliam film. And when we are given a chance to focus on the plot, the film is quite fun. The actors are all wonderful. No, Ledger isn’t the highlight of the film. He’s a pleasure to watch, but I was more interested in Plummer’s character than anyone else’s. Plummer steals the show, and gives the film something of a much needed emotional anchor. Cole, Garfield and Troyer all provide solid back-up (Garfield, after Never Let Me Go and Boy A, continues to impress me, and I look forward to seeing him as Spider-Man). Cole has a magnetic presence and a subtle sensuality, and Troyer is funny as Plummer’s best friend and business partner. As for Ledger and his character, his part obviously had to be shared with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who each play the character under differing contexts. For me, Farrell was the highlight, but Depp and Law do adequate jobs as well. Oh yeah, and Tom Waits plays the Devil… which is fantastic casting.
The trouble is, the film feels incomplete and all over the map. This was probably inevitable, given the troubled production and the rewrites Gilliam had to do. Still, a little more focus would’ve been helpful. However, the film can be recommended if nothing more than for the final half, which is pretty good, and features some of the film’s best visuals.