Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The (United Kingdom/Canada/France, 2009)

December 21, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Poster

If I was a teacher and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was a student's paper, I would give it an "incomplete." After all, how can one assess a project whose nature was irrevocably altered when the lead actor died? Whatever vision director Terry Gilliam had for this movie perished along with Heath Ledger. It's to Gilliam's credit that he was able to make something out of the mess left in the wake of the Oscar-winner's untimely demise, but perhaps Gilliam would have been better off to simply let go. Perhaps he was haunted by the various disasters that beset his ill-fated attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and didn't want to lose another movie to fate, but The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus seems to be what it is: a movie assembled from diverse pieces that don't quite match. It's the cinematic equivalent of a patchwork quilt.

The day Ledger's body was discovered, he was in the midst of filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In fact, according to sources, his contribution was perhaps as much as half complete. With the production in such an advanced state, it was impractical for Gilliam to hire a new actor and start anew. So, in lieu of cashing in the insurance and calling it a wrap, he elected to salvage what he could. Following some re-writes and with the help of a few friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), he was able to complete the movie. No one uninvolved in the production can say how close the finished version of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is to the original representation, but it at least represents a farewell to Ledger. Despite significant narrative and pacing problems, the film is visually and thematically interesting, and features many Gilliam touches.

The wizened Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) looks a little aged, but that's not surprising considering the truth. He is millennia old, having once made a deal with the devil (he and Dorian would get along well). Those things never turn out well, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, working with a small roving carnival troupe that includes his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), the faithful Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer), the Doctor stages a nightly magic act that transports people through a mirror and into other realities. The group is joined by the mysterious Tony (Heath Ledger) when they find him hanging from a noose under a bridge. He immediately sets to work updating the show to make it more relevant and profitable. This irritates Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a.k.a. the Devil, who believes Tony is giving Paranassus an unfair advantage in their ongoing game of wits. And Mr. Nick isn't the kind of man to take this sort of thing lying down.

The way in which Gilliam circumvented Ledger's death was to use all the material he had stockpiled featuring the actor (resulting in scenes that might have been better left on the cutting room floor appearing in the final cut) and later have Tony literally change his face (first to Depp, then to Law, then to Farrell) every time he passes through the mirror to another world. Some CGI may have been employed and the makeup jobs are excellent - so good, in fact, that it's difficult to identify Depp as the character until the first close-up. Law likewise requires double-takes. Farrell is a little more obvious. It's a credit to Gilliam's mastery as a filmmaker that if you didn't know his lead actor died during filming, you'd never figure it out purely from what's on screen.

The movie suffers from uneven pacing, with the first half dragging before things pick up for the imaginative second portion. The narrative is also somewhat thin, functioning for the most part as a clothesline upon which Gilliam can hang a number of impressive-looking and offbeat sequences. Indeed, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus often seems like a trip down Memory Lane for Gilliam, with direct references to The Adventures of Baron Muchausen, The Fisher King, Time Bandits, The Brothers Grimm, and (of course) Monty Python's Flying Circus (men dressing as women and dancing police officers wearing stockings). From a visual standpoint, this is vintage Gilliam, with the director in peak form. Sadly, perhaps in part because of circumstances beyond his control, the filmmaker has neither the story nor the steady pace necessary to declare this an unqualified winner. The good news for Gilliam's legion of fans is that it's an improvement over his last endeavor, Tideland. The moments of magic almost make this a ride worth taking.

Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The (United Kingdom/Canada/France, 2009)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1