In another post I stated that I looked forward to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus based, in part, on an impressive movie poster. After seeing the movie, it is clear one cannot judge a book, or movie in this case, by its cover.

The films of Terry Gilliam are an acquired taste and even then the aficionados are few (like rare and smelly cheese). While Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen might have an earnest if not broad following, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus fails to stir even these loyalists. That’s no surprise. Imaginarium is dull and tedious, struggling to get past even its first act. It’s a mess, full of unsympathetic characters pursuing selfish ends who never develop in an meaningful way.

My friends Liberty Belle and her fiancé, with whom I saw the film put it well, “It’s an intriguingly boring film.” And in a perverse way it is. Watching it you wonder if the stultifying dullness of the last scene will be topped by the next.

Imaginarium focuses on a man, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal ex-monk and now traveling showman who made a deal with the Devil to restore his youth so he could win the love of his life. In exchange, the Devil gets the Doctor’s child Valentina (Lily Cole), when she turns 16. We enter the story a few days before Valentina’s sixteenth birthday while Doctor Parnassus drowns his guilty conscience in alcohol and tries to keep Valentina from the Devil’s clutches.

In order to keep Valentina, the Doctor wanders around London in a massive horse drawn wagon that is both stage and home to a motley crew that includes Valentina, Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Percy (Verne Troyer). Anton is a young man in love with Valentina. Percy, also a former monk, drives the massive wagon and keeps Doctor Parnassus grounded in what passes, in this movie anyway, for the world.

In due course Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) enters this unconventional crew when Tony is found not quite dead, hanging from a bridge. He brings a new energy to the show and becomes Anton’s rival for Valentina’s affection.

The centerpiece of the travelling show is a mirror that allows those who pass through it to enter a land built from their imagination. Oh oh. Dull people have dull imaginations. That, after all, is part of what makes them dull. Terry Gulliam it seems, doesn’t seem to think about much, at least not much that matters.

The mirror allows Gilliam to indulge in striking visuals and flights of fancy while ignoring such trifles as theme, plot, and character development. A drunken hooligan pushes his way into it and finds himself wandering in a creepy forest and snatched by massive space-dwelling jellyfish. A socialite wanders amidst her dream world of enormous dress shoes and Faberge Eggs. Within the mirror’s fantastical world everyone is given a choice of either following their bliss or following the Devil. If they choose the former they are awarded with a joyous return to the real world. If the latter, they are blown to bits by whatever device the Devil used to entice them.

This land of imagination is one reason that Imaginarium has that perverse but intriguing quality. Another is the massive horse-drawn wagon in which the small theater troop travels. It’s larger than a double-decker bus and sways back and forth like a ship at sea, out of place in the modern world through which it travels.

While these visuals and Faustian bargain shed a little light in a very dark place, the unsympathetic characters quickly extinguish it. It is vital a film have well-rounded characters that develop as the action progresses. Viewers need to identify with the characters and Imaginarium offers no one even remotely sympathetic.

And who is the protagonist? Valentina is the damsel in distress. Anton is nothing but a foil for the slick Tony. Tony is a manipulative con man using who uses everyone around him. Doctor Parnassus is a lost old man prone who drinks too much and, for most of the film, sits around holding a lotus flower oblivious to the chaos that roils around him.

The only character that develops in any way is the one we are supposed to root against. The Devil (Tom Waits) is a scheming gambler who cannot resist a good bet. He is less interested in winning souls than in winning the wager. The Devil goes from someone who cynically dismantles a monk’s belief system to a compassionate individual who weakly attempts to save someone from their own foolishness. When the antagonist is a film’s only good guy, we know we’ve got a problem.

Furthermore, Terry Gilliam asks us to sympathize with a 15 year old girl whose purpose in life is to bed a man more than twice her age by the time she turns sixteen. Valentina is blind to Anton’s feeble courting but enthralled by the slick, conniving Tony. Sure, the age of consent is 16 in England, but surely even they can smell the predatory desires of old men – can’t they?

Before the screening, Liberty Belle and her finance told me about a gym teacher at LB’s high school who was “dating” his 16 year old students.The thirty-something teacher invited them to his house, plied them with alcohol, and let them “sleep over.”  No one found out until one mom found pictures of her daughter in the teacher’s bed. She reported it to the principal but she did nothing. The teacher voluntarily transferred to another school and the abuse started all over again. Watching Tony try to molest Valentina reminded us of this creep. It didn’t make Tony any more appealing either.

The film never satisfies, there is no pay-off. Even the Faustian bargain falls flat. The Devil “proves” that the Doctor’s belief system is built on a lie by refuting the Doctor’s idea that monks must recite stories. When the monks go silent the Devil notes that the world continues without the their voices. Parnassus refutes the proof, asserting that the story continues somewhere else, “You can’t stop a story being told.” It’s an intriguing idea but we never hear anything more about it. It looks like Gilliam came up with a clever line and wanted it in the movie whether it advanced the plot or not.

Then there is the Heath Ledger problem. When Ledger passed away scenes that included his character were not yet filmed. Gilliam rewrote the script to keep Ledger’s scenes intact and had his character change appearance as he passed through the mirror. That, apparently, is how Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell got their jobs. It gives the whole enterprise a cheap, Las Vegas feel. Look, there’s Sammy Davis Jr! Over here! It’s Peter Lawford!

Depp, Farrell and Law are not playing a role so much as they are playing an actor playing a role. Instead of enjoying a character in a story, we watch an acting exercise in which three actors adopt the characteristics created by a fourth. The transitions from Ledger to Depp, back to Ledger, then on to Law, back to Ledger again and finally closing with Farrell are quite jarring.

This movie is an incoherent mess. Don’t bother with it. It starts and stalls in its opening scene. Better to stay at home and watch something more edifying like Laverne and Shirley reruns.