I've been waiting two years to see this movie. No, no, no.... It had nothing to do with it being Heath Ledger's last movie. No, I'm a Terry Gilliam fan. He's never made a bad movie, in my opinion. Sure, some are average, but he's at least got a stunning visual style and won't compromise his vision. This is his first movie since the very polarizing Tideland, which came out in 2006. This movie won't be quite as controversial, I don't think. It doesn't require a change of thought patterns for the viewer like that one did.
The movie is about a traveling sideshow attraction, and more specifically the people involved with it. The sideshow is run by a Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) who has lived a thousand years. See, he made a deal with the devil for eternal life. Now the devil keeps making additional bets to tease Parnassus, making Parnassus' end of the bargain possibly not need to be paid, but Parnassus keeps losing the bets. What Parnassus owes the devil is his only daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), due at the age of 16, which is just two days away. To foil things even further, another member of the team, Anton (Andrew Garfield), has a crush on Valentina, and the team rescues a man hanging by his neck from a bridge. The man turns out the be an amnesiac, who they end up calling George (Heath Ledger). He joins the team and they set off to improve people's souls. How, you may ask....? Why the fake mirror that the sideshow is about... It takes you into Parnassus' mind, where you can fulfill your deepest desires. However, the devil is often there too, to fool you into choosing selfish desires.
The movie is a bit difficult to understand at times, but then again almost all Gilliam movies are... even 12 Monkeys. The visuals are amazing, and include a sort of tango through floating broken glass, climbing ladders into the clouds, and dancing, singing, pantyhose-wearing coppers! (I'm not kidding on that last one either.) Now, I do have to point out that the movie does take a good thirty minutes or so to get going, and even then it'll leave you wondering what the heck it's trying to get to for a while. Unlike a typical Hollywood film, it's really not a build, ebb, build, ebb type of movie. It doesn't go by the same formula as those movies. In fact, as with most Gilliam movies, at the end of the movie you're left feeling somewhat cheated of something. Of what? It's hard to say. It's just a feeling I always get after every movie of his. Is it of a happy ending? A meaningful resolution? Sanity? (Usually yes on the last one...)
Now, I know most people will not be seeing this because it's Terry Gilliam. Most will be seeing it for Heath Ledger and the cameos by Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp. Well, they are in there, with Johnny Depp's screen time being the shortest, and Colin Farrell's the longest of the cameos. Heath Ledger had actually done most of the stuff he was supposed to. They changed the script so that each time the George/Tony character entered the mirror, he changed appearances... Those were the parts that Ledger had not filmed, or at least not completed. It works remarkably well.
It's not Gilliam's best work, nor his least best. It's better than Brothers' Grimm, but not quite up to the level of Time Bandits or Brazil. If you like his movies, you'll probably like this. If not, I'd stay away. It's not for everyone.
**** out of ***** (4 out of 5)