Terry Gilliam's controversial The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has grabbed headlines as "Heath Ledger's final film," but it's actually just as notable as something close to a return to form for the great director of such classics as Brazil and The Fisher King. Now, it's certainly nowhere near as accomplished a film as those from Gilliam's peak, but it is much further up the mountain than the very disappointing The Brothers Grimm or the abysmal Tideland. It is certainly disheartening to have to wave goodbye to one of the most talented actors of his generation with this elegy but it is inspiring to note that he may have given creative spark to Gilliam, as his work will certainly do to so many for years to come. It may sound morbid, but Doctor Parnassus is probably a better film due to the massive revisions necessary by Ledger's death, ones that are worked into the film thematically. It makes the film's themes on identity and personality much more resonant and allows for great cameos by the talented actors who stepped in when Ledger passed away. Ultimately, if Ledger had completed the entire film or not, Doctor Parnassus doesn't seem well-focused enough to be a truly landmark Gilliam work but it's much closer than anything else he's done this millennium.
The title character of Gilliam's film is actually played by Christopher Plummer, a magic man with a travelling sideshow that actually allows customers to enter their own imaginations. His assistants, including the showman Anton (Andrew Garfield), the eye-catching Percy (Verne Troyer), and his own daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), work with the good doctor in presenting his subjects with the choices of their subconscious – moving away from evil and towards good. Evil is represented by Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), better known to most as the devil, a powerful man who gave Parnassus the gift of immortality a thousand years earlier. Of course, as with all gifts, there was a cost. Parnassus would have to give up his only child to the forces of evil on her sixteenth birthday, a day that is rapidly approaching. Consequently, Mr. Nick shows up, giving Dr. Parnassus one more gamble to save his daughter's soul. He and Mr. Nick will battle for souls and the first one to five wins.
Enter Tony Sheppard (Heath Ledger), a man found hanging from a bridge with no memory of who he is or how he got there. With hints at a shady background, Sheppard joins the troupe, creates a love triangle with Anton and Valentina, and becomes the ultimate salesmen in Dr. Parnassus' Imaginarium. All of the "real world" footage of Tony features Ledger in the role, but when he enters the Imaginarium, identities become fluid and other actors take up the part. First, Johnny Depp plays Tony as a slick, smooth talker. Second, Jude Law becomes the wide-eyed dreamer of the fantasy world. Finally, Colin Farrell represents what could be the true Tony, a sleazeball.
Clearly, there is a lot going on thematically in Gilliam's ambitious film. It's about fate, love, sin, good, evil, imagination, technology, identity, and much more. Very few filmmakers would be able to wrestle so many ideas into anything approaching the narrative of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus but even the very skilled Gilliam loses his way at crucial points, sometimes resulting in a film that feels more cluttered than inspired. The three Ledger replacements are all quite good and clearly fit the film thematically, but the revolving door adds to a film that often feels unfocused. It's not as wildly so as Tideland, but there are times when Gilliam loses the narrative through-line of Imaginarium, keeping it from being the great fantasy film it could have been with a bit more rewriting and editing.
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: January 8th, 2010
Starring: Heath Ledger, Andrew Stanton, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown