Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

A sad pall hangs over The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009). It was the final film of the late Heath Ledger, who died at the age of 28 during its making. Losing a star in such a tragic way would probably shut down any other movie, and for a while, this one was on hold. Eventually, director Terry Gilliam (who co-wrote the movie with Charles McKeown) developed the conceit of a magic mirror into a fantasy world altering Ledger's character's appearance enough to allow Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to step in and complete the role, ensuring Ledger's final performance would not be lost.

Ledger plays Tony, an amnesic who becomes a pivotal figure in a feud between Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the immortal leader of a traveling theater company, and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), the devil. The "Imaginarium" is a stage mirror that allows a person to enter an imaginary world commanded by Parnassus's mind where he or she chooses between good and evil. Parnassus and Mr. Nick are locked in a bet over souls, with the winner getting Parnassus' daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) as the prize.

Gilliam's followup to the dreary freak show of Tideland, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus finds the director on more familiar and comfortable territory, resulting in a movie that's more charming and has a lighter touch with a few darker elements on the edges. We re-visit some of Gilliam's favorite themes and motifs, including the power of imagination, its ability to provide an escape from life's daily hardships, the art and magnificence of story and performance, and the conflict between parent and child.

As is common through much of Gilliam's work, the plot borders on nonsensical. I admit being lost a number of times and being puzzled by certain developments and character actions; I don't even think I can begin to explain the ending. Regardless, Gilliam still possesses his flair of visual extravagance and wonder, using Parnassus' fantasy to create a kaleidoscope of color and texture. It's really quite astounding. I particularly liked the scene where Law's Tony is being chased up a ladder into the sky, and when the ladder splits in two, the chase resumes with the ladder being used as stilts. Later, Farrell is in a giant theater that begins cracking open into nothingness and eventually a desert.

Gilliam seems to be channeling his Monty Python days with some of the images. One can't see the giant stone statue of Parnassus' head spinning in the sand, the giant flight of stone stairs to the heavens, or the head of a Russian woman opening up to reveal Mr. Nick at the controls of a cockpit and not be reminded of the crude animation of Flying Circus, although these are more polished. There's also a sense of humor, much of it coming from Verne Troyer as Percy, Parnassus' diminutive, long-suffering assistant who is always yelling at the doctor and others to stay focused on the task at hand.

Helping things immensely is a strong cast. Ledger displays his roguish charisma and charm, highlighting just what a loss of talent he was. Credit must also be given to Depp, Law, and Farrell for admirably completing the part; you can watch and believe they're playing the same character. Plummer is also good as the tortured, guilt-ridden immortal doctor, and Waits is an inspired choice for Mr. Nick, presenting himself as a low-key con artist and manipulator with only hints of the loathsome demon within.

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