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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus Review – An Aptly Bizarre Setting for Ledger’s Last Bow

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus Review – An Aptly Bizarre Setting for Ledger’s Last Bow” width=”560″/>

On paper, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus sounds like a dream come true for fans of director Terry Gilliam: a fable about a wager with the Devil for human souls, set largely in an elaborate fantasy world, with none other than gravelly-voiced singer and cult figure Tom Waits playing Satan. Of course, this being a Gilliam production — the filmmaker has made on-set disaster as much a staple of his art as dystopian visions and comic flights of fancy — the journey from paper to screen was destined not to be easy. First, star Heath Ledger died midway through production. Then, the screenplay by Gilliam and long-time collaborator Charles McKeown turned out to make no sense. Gilliam ingeniously solved the first problem, but could do little about the second.

The solution to Ledger’s untimely death requires some back story. Ledger’s character, known only as Tony, is an amnesiac picked up by a gang of vagabonds after a suicide attempt. The vagabonds are the mysterious Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), his fetching daughter Valentina (relative newcomer Lily Cole), a sharp-tongued dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) and Anton (the very funny Andrew Garfield), Dr. Parnassus’s orphan assistant. They are a traveling carnival act. In theory, willing patrons enter the chamber of Dr. Parnassus — who is actually several thousand years old — and choose either the path of good (in which case Dr. Parnassus wins their souls and they emerge transformed), or the path of evil (in which case the Devil wins and they are presumably never heard from again).

The eager-to-please Tony may be the key to the outcome of the bet, which Dr. Parnassus looks about to lose as the movie begins. At first, he merely charms worthy (female) contestants into playing the game. But eventually, he too must enter the topsy-turvy fantasy universe behind Dr. Parnassus’s mirror and grapple with the Devil’s temptations.

And here’s where we get to how Gilliam dealt with the sudden absence of his lead actor. It turns out that at the time of his death, Ledger had completed shooting the scenes in real-world London; all that remained were the sequences set in the largely-CGI Imaginarium. And so, the solution: Every time Tony enters the Imagninarium, he is played by a different actor, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepping up to the plate.

Though watching Parnassus with this background knowledge is a little painful, the movie is plausibly salvaged. The maneuver doesn’t even seem particularly unnatural in the midst of the general weirdness: It’s established that Tony is special, and that the Imaginarium transforms reality in unpredictable ways. Tony is the only character we see take the plunge multiple times, and maybe the Imaginarium reveals different sides of him each time. Charitable viewers (and how can one be anything but charitable in this scenario?) will readily explain away the inconsistency.

Various actors taking Ledger’s place turns out to make more sense than the rest of Parnassus, in fact, which starts strongly but soon begins to flail. The biggest problem is Gilliam’s blithe disregard for narrative. The movie rarely moves beyond the conceptual; Gilliam and McKeown took their idea and, in lieu of developing it, surrounded it with all manner of visually inventive (and often quite lovely) oddness.

Some Gilliam fans, I know, will shrug at this — many value the director’s aesthetic above all else. But Gilliam’s best movies are also wonderfully thought-through. 12 Monkeys is one of cinema’s few competent treatments of the time paradox, and Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (the director’s cut) is intricately plotted, if sometimes a bit inscrutable. When Gilliam indulges his reputation as a trippy fantasist at the expense of story, he usually winds up with interesting mediocrities like Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and now The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

I did like where the movie ended up, both literally and thematically — it’s not that people are necessarily good, Gilliam says, but that the Devil might not be that bad. Ledger gamely grapples with his slippery last role, though he is overshadowed somewhat by Andrew Garfield, who more than anyone else makes himself at home in Gilliam’s bizarro milieu. Tom Waits is surprisingly gentlemanly (and very entertaining) as Lucifer. And it’s hard not to feel for Gilliam, who did not need his star dying on him. I hear he is about to restart his originally ill-fated Don Quixote project. Let’s hope it turns out less nebulous and opaque than Parnassus.

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