The most impressive thing about The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is its very existence. About a third of the way through filming the mind-bending fantasy, leading man Heath Ledger died of a tragic drug overdose. Director Terry Gilliam, who's suffered more than his share of troubled productions, ingeniously cast three of Ledger's A-list friends – Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – to play Ledger's character.
In interviews, Gilliam explains that Ledger had filmed all his scenes except those that take place in a dream-universe on the other side of a magic mirror. In the finished film, every time Ledger's "Tony" steps through the looking glass, one of the other movie stars emerges from the other side, with an identical white suit and hairstyle. Gilliam claims that apart from setting up the transformation gimmick, none of the words in Imaginarium's script were changed. A scene in which Depp mentions how Casanova, James Dean and Princess Diana died prematurely and became "forever young" becomes a haunting tribute to Ledger.
The triple recasting of Ledger's role turns out to be one of the few successful aspects of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a strained and scarcely coherent allegory that showcases some of Gilliam's greatest strengths, as well as the filmmaker's conspicuous flaws. Christopher Plummer plays Dr. Parnassus, an aged storyteller who tours the world in a ramshackle medicine-show wagon worthy of the late 19th century. Dr. Parnassus' traveling theater troupe includes his teenage daughter Valentina (model/actress Lily Cole), lovelorn sleight-of-hand artist Anton (Andrew Garfield) and midget Percy (Verne "Mini Me" Troyer). In the first scenes, they perform for rowdy, unimpressed drunks in a squalid London alley.
Despite his seedy showmanship, Dr. Parnassus has grander ambitions than earning the spare change of passersby. He's actually thousands of years old, thanks to a deal he struck with a dapper devil (Tom Waits). Parnassus asserts that "stories sustain the universe" and point audiences to higher thoughts, while the Devil tempts people to damnation via their lowest impulses. Their millennia-long competition comes to a head when the Devil claims Valentina's soul in exchange for Dr. Parnassus' immortality. The devil offers a bargain – the first to seduce five souls will claim Parnassus' daughter.
At the same time, the company rescues a would-be suicide (Ledger) hanging from a bridge like a Tarot card figure. A London wheeler-dealer with a shady past, Tony convinces Dr. Parnassus to update the troupe's style. Ledger pours on the charm in his scenes as an unlikely emcee, but in either incarnation, the performances would only appeal to spectators at a Renaissance festival or Burning Man.
Dr. Parnassus' Imaginarium, a backstage mirror, leads to a dimension that reflects a person's inner desires and allows Gilliam's prodigious imagination to run wild. Some of the mindscapes resemble Gilliam's animation from his Monty Python days, only with CGI candy colors and plump curves. The film drinks in flying jellyfish, mountainous staircases, and schooner-sized shoes sailing over waves. At one point Jude Law's Tony climbs a towering ladder that splits down the middle to become a pair of stilts, on which he lurches across a pastoral countryside.
Much of Gilliam's imagery, like head-knocking cops in a dancing kickline, feels arrested in the trippy, radical art of the 1960s and seems weirdly anachronistic today. Worse, Imaginarium's scenes of "normal" conversation feature tedious dialogue and frantic portrayals, as if the actors are trying to compete with the outlandish production design. Wiggy, wearying performances weigh down much of Gilliam's work. His Orwellian satire Brazil remains his best film partly because the hapless characters played straight to the blunders of futuristic technology. More often, he just releases crazy people in crazier environments.
I have to give Gilliam the benefit of the doubt that Imaginarium's resolution of the "first to five" premise makes sense – I couldn't make head nor tail out of it. Imaginarium manages to offer a heartfelt homage to Ledger without feeling like exploitation, but otherwise proves to be a headache-inducing muddle. Gilliam's cinematic visions often combined cunning references to classical art with a distinctive, shabby-looking visual aesthetic. Imaginarium suggests that a key part of the director's sensibility remains locked in the junk shop.
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