Movie review by Greg Carlson
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” will draw some spectators solely on the morbid curiosity factor that director Terry Gilliam was in production when actor Heath Ledger died. Gilliam, who continues to earn his reputation as one of the least fortunate filmmakers in the business, scrambled to salvage something worthwhile from the tragedy, but like so many of the fabulist’s features, the resulting movie is sloppy and poorly paced, lurching from one wild idea to another. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is closer to “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” than “The Brothers Grimm,” but like the latter, a dependence on computer-generated special effects will make many of Gilliam’s ardent supporters long for the handmade physicality of the pre-digital years.
Christopher Plummer plays the title character, a traveling carnival magician and Gilliam surrogate who makes ill-advised wagers with the Devil himself. As the King of Hell, known principally as Mr. Nick, Tom Waits alternates between the “can’t be bothered” cool of his cultivated persona and the growls and barks of a well-lubricated guard dog in the style of Nick Nolte. With Lucifer close at hand, Parnassus lumbers around modern day London in an anachronistic theatre wagon, facing the unfortunate prospect of having to turn over his nearly sixteen-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to the evil one. Parnassus, naturally, has not told his lovely offspring that her soul risks imminent forfeiture to Beelzebub.
Ledger enters the story as Tony, a possible amnesiac who joins the disheveled troupe and poses an immediate romantic threat to Parnassus’ underling Anton (Andrew Garfield) for the affections of Valentina. Tony shakes up the daily routine, suggesting a new look for the nightly show that sends attendees through a Lewis Carroll-esque looking glass into a fantasy domain where Gilliam’s images blossom into arrays of surrealistic spectacle. When Tony enters the hidden realm of the imaginarium to take part in scenes that had not been shot at the time of Ledger’s death, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell take over as the character.
The presence of the three stars has a curious impact on the movie, calling attention to Ledger’s absence while simultaneously providing the means for Gilliam to complete the film. Ledger’s Tony is not the center of the movie, but the performer’s literal graven image overshadows the players with whom he shares scenes. In particular, Verne Troyer is wretched and out of his depth as Parnassus company member Percy. The diminutive actor fails to convincingly deliver a single line, infusing his readings with the flat, self-conscious cadences often heard in junior high school drama productions. In hindsight, Mike Myers look brilliant for rendering Mini-Me mute.
Gilliam and screenwriting collaborator Charles McKeown tangentially address themes of death, but the most thought-provoking issues that surround fame and immortality, dying young, and the afterlife are drowned in the parade of Gilliam’s chaotic, frantic images. In one eerie moment, miniature effigies picturing the likes of Princess Diana and James Dean float down a river that might be Styx, and the viewer half expects to see Ledger himself included in the group. He isn’t, but his participation in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” fixes the movie as a strange memorial that dominates any reading Terry Gilliam might otherwise have solicited or desired.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/25/10.