Hollywood loves a story. When Heath Ledger died Hollywood got it. Having turned in terrific performances in both “Brokeback Mountain” and the posthumously released “The Dark Knight” Ledger had set himself up as a tragic screen legend, a shining star extinguished well before his time. That Hollywood story is in for a bit of a revision with Terry Gilliam’s latest picture, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Ledger died of a reported overdose almost two years ago, during the filming of the movie, and while the long list of worldwide studios who signed on to distribute “Parnassus” would like to sell the picture as the last great performance of a of a silver screen luminary, don’t be fooled. With none of the understated stoicism of Enis Del Mar or the menace of The Joker, Ledger puts in an over blown performance as Tony, the amnesiac philanthropist, which most will sweep under the carpet as a sad footnote to an otherwise successful career.
In fact there is little about this film that lives up the previous work of those involved. Gilliam, who in recent years has been cursed with some of the worst luck ever bestowed on any film maker, employs most of his old tricks, the distorting wide angle close-ups, the decrepit scenery, and mining his Monty Python days, some very hokey animation, but none of it ever comes together. The film starts with the introduction of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his Imaginarium, the magic of which is not sufficiently explored or explained, as he puts on his performance in front of a trendy London Night Club with the help of his assistants Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (a woefully miscast Verne Troyer), and his pixie-like daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). As a local ruffian stumbles onto the ramshackle cart that doubles for an even more rickety stage he trips through a mirror and is transported into the Imaginarium. There the man’s imagination is made real, and he is forced to make a decision of the easy way, represented by a tavern run by Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), an incarnation of the devil, and the hard way represented by a giant staircase. For some reason that is never even discussed his face changes into that of someone else, thus giving Gilliam an easy out later when Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell take over the role of Tony in the scenes that Ledger did not get a chance to film.
The look of the Imaginarium is painfully amateurish and cheap, looking more like the temp shots used to give the basic idea during a rough cut rather than the fully rendered finished product. Back before the short cut of CGI Gilliam’s worlds had texture and depth. His vision of Hell in “Time Bandits,” or the labyrinthine underground future of “12 Monkeys” were helped by the fact Gilliam was forced to work with practical effects, giving the sets a dirty reality, which is completely stripped from the Imaginarium. It is flat and plastic and a real step backward for a filmmaker known for his lush imagination.
Soon we come to find out that Dr. Parnassus had made a deal with Mr. Nick for the life of his daughter at her sixteenth birthday in exchange for the love of Valentina’s mother. Valentina is on the verge of the age in question when they stumble on Tony, hanging from his neck under a London Bridge. After the traveling troupe save the doomed man he joins up with them in order to help Parnassus win a new wager with Mr. Nick, first to five souls in the Imaginarium, the victor to have Valentina. Though upon learning of the Parnassus’ power Tony contrives his own agenda.
Gilliam’s solution for finishing the film after Ledger’s death lacks any finesse. As the battle ensues we are treated to scene after scene of the Imaginarium, each time Tony having a new face. It would make sense that in one’s imagination one would see them selves idealized, but unfortunately the difference between Ledger, Law, Depp, and Farrell is just varying degrees of handsome, and the gag becomes absurd.
While Anton is in love with Valentina her affections soon grow for Tony, and he is more than willing to exploit them in order to get what he wants, but what is that exactly Mr. Gilliam? The script by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, who collaborated together in the past on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Brazil,” sets up a wide array of lofty themes and subplots, but never fully follows through with any of them. What is Dr. Parnassus’ power, and where does it stem from? What does Tony really want? Why is Verne Troyer in this movie?
Though it might be harsh to say this picture should have died with Mr. Ledger. Rarely does an actor ever know what their last performance will be, for what roles they will be remembered, but in Heath Ledger’s case it will be shame if this is it. In fact it will be an equal shame if anyone remembers the performances of Johnny Depp or Jude Law in this picture either. Neither one is playing up to their potential; they seem more like they are doing a favor for a passing acquaintance. Colin Farrell does what is expected of him, he doesn’t really impress, but then again rarely does anyway.
Having made some of the most beloved movies of all time it is an awful when a talent such as Terry Gilliam pumps out so much disappointment onto the screen. Where there might have been a salvageable film in there somewhere had Ledger not passed, judging from the result it is hard to conceive that as possible. Enduring production crippling floods and death and everything in between it seems like God is out Terry Gilliam. If his next picture isn’t a return to form then maybe he finally cracked under the pressure.
El Luchador Rating: 1 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)