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Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Ledger-demain: Gilliam leaves nothing to the Imaginarium
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 11, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus | Directed by Terry Gilliam | Written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown | with Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Peter Stormare, and Maggie Steed | Sony Pictures Classics | 122 minutes
Few filmmakers have suffered from the life-imitates-art phenomenon as has Terry Gilliam. Read, for example, David Yule's book Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga on the making of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Or watch Louis Pepe & Keith Fulton's 2002 movie Lost in La Mancha, which is about the unmaking of Gilliam's film about Don Quixote.

So when Heath Ledger, star of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, died during production, it wasn't as if Gilliam hadn't been there before. Besides, this was a movie about death and the immortalizing power of art. How surprising was it that one of the cinematic demigods involved would shuffle off his mortal coil while his image was being preserved forever on film?

Nonetheless, the tragedy presented Gilliam with a big problem, one that he solved with his typical untidy ingenuity. Taking his cue perhaps from Luis Buñuel in That Obscure Object of Desire, he cast not one but three stars — Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell — to represent Ledger in the unshot scenes, and he incorporated their additions as part of an overall inquiry into the elusive nature of identity.

It doesn't quite work out. Then again, nothing else does in this gloriously incontinent outpouring of creative zeal. The film is not unlike the Imaginarium of the title, a tottering horse-drawn shambles packed with tawdry magical paraphernalia, kitschy props, and assorted rubbish overseen by a decrepit wizard. Every now and then, however, it opens up into realms of surreal hilarity, vistas resembling at times the treacly afterlife of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones but more often the gleeful nightmares of Dalí, Magritte, De Chirico, and Monty Python.

Christopher Plummer brings gravitas and decrepitude to Doctor Parnassus, who may or may not be more than 1000 years old, and who runs the Imaginarium with the help of his Botticellian daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his young apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield), and his minute factotum Percy (Verne Troyer). They lure thrill seekers into the realm behind a mirror where these individuals' best and worst dreams spring to life, and where they must choose wisely what they want most.

Parnassus, it seems, has gotten into the Faustian habit of wagering souls with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a practice that has so far gained him eternal life but might cost him something far more precious. It appears he's doomed to pay up — but then, prompted by a tarot card, his troupe come across a man (Ledger and company) hanging from a bridge. They rescue and revive him, and though he looks disreputable in his white linen suit and can't remember who he is, Parnassus believes he might be the solution to their woes.

Not the solution to Gilliam's narrative woes, however. No doubt he and co-scripter Charles McKeown had to work late nights to write their way out of Ledger's loss, and at times the entire film seems to have been prompted by random tarot cards, as it meanders into blind and tedious storylines. But just when Gilliam's art is on the point of imitating life and all life's incidental meaninglessness, it convulses into an image of stunning weirdness and clarity, and for a moment you can believe that movies really do hold the key to immortality.

Related: Review: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Review: The Cartel, More more >
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