There are spoilers in this post. It is less of a review and more a movie summary with some discussion. But don't worry! You can be told the entire plot of this movie and still not know what on earth is going on when/if you finally watch it for yourself. If you did see the movie (or just read the summary), feel free to comment. This movie was very unusual, and I wouldn't be surprised if I misunderstood the entire thing.
The movie starts out 3 days before Dr. Parnassus's daughter, Valentina, turns 16. Dr. Parnassus is hundreds of years old. He "won" immortality from the Devil by promising him any offspring he fathered once they turned 16. Valentina doesn't know this, and Parnassus spends the first part of the movie in a drunken emo stupor over this sad fact. Guyliner and everything. The Devil decides to make another wager with Parnassus, to give him one more chance to keep his daughter. The first person to win five souls by the time Valentina turns 16 (by now it's only two days away), gets to keep Valentina.
To win a soul, a person has to go inside the Imaginarium, and make the right choice. The Imaginarium gets "turned on" when Dr. Parnassus goes into a trance. The person walks through a broken mirror, and they are transported inside their own imagination. Eventually, they will come to a decision. One guy has to chose to either climb a giant mountain, or have drink in a pub. Another woman must chose between spending time in a motel room with Johnny Depp, or floating down a river to be awesome and dead like Princess Di. Four other guys have to chose between joining a violence-loving, cross-dressing police force or running home to mommy. It's weird. I don't quite get what it's supposed to be, but it seems like both decisions are based off of the same desire. One is just the easy way to get it, and the other is the hard way. It doesn't quite make sense, but one choice means Dr. Parnassus has won, and the other means the Devil has won. In the choices above, the "Dr. Parnassus" choice was climb the mountain, float down the river of death, and join the cross-dressing police force. If you choose the Devil's option, you explode inside the Imaginarium, and are presumably dead. If you chose the Dr. Parnassus choice, you get to come out of the Imaginarium on a leafy swing, feeling pure bliss, having been "reborn."
So right before the devil makes this new bet, the Dr. Parnassus crew (Valentina, a midget, and some other guy named Anton) "rescues" a guy named Tony - Heath Ledger's character. They find him hanging from a bridge. He claims to not know who he is, but he's lying. He tags along to help them get five more souls, though I'm not sure why. He says it's to repay them for saving his life, but I think he was just using them to hide out. He charms some women into the Imaginarium, and goes in with them to help them make the right "Dr. Parnassus" choice. He eventually gets recognized by the people that tried to kill him in the first place, and runs into the Imaginarium to hide. Inside his own imagination, he's amazed by what seems possible in there. He loses the four guys chasing him (they all run home to mommy and get blown up), but has to leave before he gets to make his choice.
It's finally Valentina's birthday. The Devil and Parnassus have each won four people when Valentina finally learns what's going on. She runs away in anger. Meanwhile, Tony offers to go into the Imaginarium to be the fifth soul Parnassus needs to win the bet. As he's about to go inside, Valentina returns, very very angry. Tony convinces her to go into his imagination with him, saying they can run away and just live there forever. She agrees, despite Anton's protests that Tony is a liar. (Oh yeah, Anton found a piece of newspaper that explained who Tony really was: the chairman of a charity that was selling orphans or something. I'm not exactly sure, I thought I heard "organs," but Jill insists he said "orphans." Either way, orphans were involved. I'm just not sure if they were being harvested for organs, or sold whole. Either way: Tony = bad guy.) While in the Imaginarium, Valentina finds out the truth about Tony. She runs away, meets the Devil and comes to her choice. Still mad at her dad, she chooses the Devil's choice out of spite.
Parnassus is devastated. The Devil offers to make one more bet: if Parnassus can kill Tony, he'll give him his daughter back. Tony is being chased by an angry mob. Parnassus catches up with him, and finds out how he's survived the previous hanging- he put a pipe down his throat to prevent strangling. Tony tries to explain to Parnassus that the Devil was just tricking him, that Valentina couldn't count as the fifth soul since she was the prize, and if he helps him get away, he'll pick the correct "Dr. Parnassus" choice and Valentina will be saved. Dr. Parnassus doesn't listen and helps the mob finally succeed in killing him. The Devil shows up and tells Dr. Parnassus that he doesn't know where his daughter is. He says he never really had her in the first place.
It's many years later. Dr. Parnassus is sad, and still old. He's begging for money and someone that looks like Valentina drops some money in his cup. He follows her and sees she married Anton and has a daughter. He doesn't interfere, and with his midget friend, decides to sell puppet shows on the street. The end.
Not going to lie. This movie was little bit crazy pants.
What was the Devil? He was clearly Parnassus's adversary, but he wasn't necessarily "evil." Jill thinks he was just indifference. I think he represented something closer to realism, or cynicism. A world without imagination, or faith, or story. The "Dr. Parnassus" choices (for the most part), seemed to involve a great sacrifice for something greater than yourself. For an ideal that you valued. And the "Devil" choice was the quick easy way to get a cheap imitation of that ideal.
What was Valentina's choice? Valentina chose the Devil in the end. Valentina's choice was between a door that said "his" and a door that said "hers." She clearly went through the Devil's door ("his"). When she went through, the Devil said, "Damn. I've won." But she wasn't blown up, and the Devil told Parnassus he never really had her. Did she not really make her choice? Did it not count? She left the world of Dr. Parnassus for the real world. But then, that real family-life always was her ideal dream, her imagination.
What was Health Ledger's character supposed to be? The movie played up his huge significance -- the cards don't lie, the hanging man, etc. -- but he ended up being largely inconsequential. He did help drive parts of the story, but he didn't mean anything to it. The story had nothing to do with him, he just happened to be there for most of it.
I think I liked it. It was beautifully made and well-acted, but I was never sure what was at stake, or why it was so important for Dr. Parnassus to win. It wasn't difficult to be entertained by what was happening, but it was hard to be really invested.