Judge Erich Asperschlager is pretty sure his entire life is in someone else's mind.
"I invite you…tonight, for one night only, to enter the mind, the very great mind of Doctor Parnassus!"
With all the hoopla surrounding Health Ledger's turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, a lot of moviegoers thought it was his final role. The young actor's sudden death in 2008 was a sad day for Hollywood, and an even sadder day for his family and friends—including director Terry Gilliam, who was in the middle of shooting a film with Ledger when he died. That movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Ledger's cinematic swan song, and was completed only by the grit and dedication of Gilliam and crew, who worked around the loss by rewriting the script and bringing a trio of Ledger's peers—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell—to play Ledger's character in certain scenes. For almost any other movie, the changes would have seemed laughable, the modern equivalent of Ed Wood replacing Bela Lugosi with his wife's chiropractor. But this is a Terry Gilliam film, after all, and the weirdness works as well as if it had been planned all along.
Although The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will be remembered as Ledger's last film—not least by Gilliam, who rewrote the final credits to read "A film by Heath Ledger and Friends"—his performance is not the reason to see it. His turn as a mysterious amnesiac is compelling, as are the performances of Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Andrew Garfield, and Lily Cole, but the strength of the movie is the same as almost everything else Gilliam has done. It is a rich tapestry of images, a series of beautiful, dizzying, and terrifying dream worlds around which a story—about a man's attempt to get out of a deal with the devil—is hung. Whether or not you enjoy the film depends on your ability to let Gilliam tell the story at his pace, which is often slow and occasionally seems to ignore the idea that there is any story to tell at all. At turns magical and frustrating, Parnassus might not be a great movie, but it is an unforgettable experience. All you have to do is be willing to step through the mirror and see…
Facts of the Case
Once a monk tasked with telling an eternal story, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, Up) is now an old man traveling with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole, St. Trinian's), his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield, Doctor Who), and diminutive friend Percy (Verne Troyer, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). They traverse London in an improbable wagon that unfolds to become a stage show—an "Imaginarium" where spectators are invited to pass through a prop mirror and into a world of their own imagination. Once there, they are presented with a choice between good, embodied by Parnassus, and evil, presented by a dark figure called Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, Short Cuts). Nick and Parnassus are ancient foes, engaged in a perpetual battle for souls. The time has come for Nick to collect on their most recent wager, the price of which is Valentina herself. While Parnassus focuses on finding a way out of the deal, Valentina happens to see a man (Heath Ledger, The Brothers Grimm) hanging underneath a bridge. They rescue him, and he joins their traveling show. Parnassus comes to believe that he might hold the key to saving his daughter, but as the mysterious man regains his memory, it becomes clear that he might not be a knight in shining armor after all.
First things first: I have no idea what The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is really about. According to his commentary track, neither does Terry Gilliam. When he sat down to write the film with Charles McKeown (Gilliam's co-writer on Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), his only criteria was that the film be original. That it not be an adaptation, or based on any other idea. From there, they came up with the image of a large and ancient sideshow wagon trundling through the streets of modern London, which is exactly where the movie begins. What follows is a free-flowing series of scenes that contrast the old with the new, reality with surrealism, good with evil. The plot is ostensibly about Doctor Parnassus's deal with Mr. Nick that if he ever had a child, that child would belong to Nick when she reached the age of 16. Parnassus's daughter, Valentina, is only days away from that fateful birthday, and he must come up with a way to save her. From there, however, Gilliam expands the movie's scope, mostly by expanding the cast of characters by one—Heath Ledger's Tony, a man dressed in white they find strung up beneath a bridge. From there, the story switches focus to Tony and his discovery that Parnassus's traveling show is about more than taking money from middle aged women in parking lots.
Early scenes in the movie introduce the idea that going through the fake mirror on Doctor Parnassus's stage sends the participant into a world created by their own imagination. There isn't much information about how that happens, but the how doesn't matter. The pathway leads to a choice between good and evil. Choose the path to enlightenment by way of Parnassus's stairway to heaven, and you will live; choose the easy way out, as patron to a Mr. Nick-owned bar or a motel that caters to one-night stands, and you will die. Quite literally. But even that doesn't matter too much. The framework of moral choice is just an excuse for Gilliam to dazzle his viewers by sending them on a tour of his bizarre imagination.
Parnassus treats viewers to the most immersive and inventive imagined landscapes of the modern CGI era—and that includes certain recent fantasy blockbusters. Everyone's experience once they pass through Parnassus's mirror is different. This allows Gilliam to create dreamworlds filled with pretty much anything and everything he can think of—maniacal creatures with hands for bodies, hot air balloons with human faces, wooden ladders reaching to the sky, a black river that turns into a giant cobra, a giant Russian woman whose head pops off to reveal a tiny Tom Waits working her with a series of levers. This is weird, weird stuff. And yet it all seems completely believable. Why spend all of your efforts making computer generated people look as real as actors when you could be inventing brand new worlds for your audience to explore? Gilliam may not be for everyone, but he understands something very fundamental about the magic of movies.
Gilliam also understands how to assemble a crackerjack cast. Much has been written about Heath Ledger's performance, and with good reason. He blends perfectly into Gilliam's style. He is a chameleon, and his character flows from sympathetic to slimy, and charismatic to despicable, often in a single scene. It is a masterful performance, filled with subtlety and joy. As morbid as it might be to say, this is a better final film for the young actor than The Dark Knight. His portrayal as the Joker was memorable, to be sure, but Parnassus shows us why losing Ledger was such a blow to the acting world.
Ledger is not the only superstar in the film, however. As the immortal Doctor Parnassus, the incomparable Christopher Plummer anchors the film, giving Gilliam's impossible world weight. He carries himself like a man who has been around forever, and who has been in a battle with the devil for almost as long. His counterpart Mr. Nick is played with slimy brilliance by musician, actor, and old soul Tom Waits, and as far as I'm concerned all future cinematic versions of Satan should be played by him (or, if he's not available, Ray Wise). From his thin cigarette holder and even thinner mustache to the shock of fiery red hair under his black bowler hat, Waits embodies the idea of the devil as eternal gambler and deal-maker—a trickster whose joy comes from the thrill of a game played for human souls.
The person at the center of the Parnassus-Nick battle is Valentina, played by model Lily Cole. Despite being a full six years older than the character she plays, her cherubic face and underlying sensuality captures Valentina's transformation from childhood to adulthood. It's hard to believe this is one of her first acting roles. As Valentina's friend and would-be suitor, Anton, Andrew Garfield's flair for physical comedy makes him the perfect foil for Ledger's Tony. Verne Troyer's Percy is the film's only disappointment. It's good to see him in a more serious role, but he has a few too many lifeless line-readings to hold his own with this all-star cast.
Speaking of all-stars, I probably wouldn't be writing about this film at all if not for Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, who all stepped in after Ledger's death to help Gilliam finish it. Since Ledger died mid-way through filming, Gilliam needed to find a way to replace him. He came up with the idea that when certain people pass through the Imaginarium mirror, they look different. In Tony's case, each time he passes through, he looks like either Depp, Law, or Farrell. It is a testament to Gilliam's ability to draw his audience in that the first time Ledger is replaced by Depp, it actually takes a few seconds to recognize the difference. Far from a cheap trick, the switch actually enhances the film—a happy result out of a tragic ending.
Unlike the current release of Ledger's "other" final film, this DVD is packed with extras, and many of them pay tribute to the late actor. But not in an exploitative way. The memorial comes from the top down. Terry Gilliam's introduction to the film addresses the loss of Heath Ledger. He talks at length in his audio commentary about what it was like to work with him. He talks about the other actors as well, and about how the film was made, but beneath it all is the sense that he truly loved Ledger and wants to make sure he isn't forgotten. There is so much cynicism in the movie industry these days. Good thing we have people like Terry Gilliam to remind us what really matters.
The bonus features also include an unfinished deleted scene with optional director's commentary, several making-of featurettes, Health Ledger's wardrobe test (also with optional commentary), an interview with the late actor, a look at the film's artwork, and footage of Gilliam introducing the cast and crew onstage in London in 2009.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As awe-truck as I am by The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I'm not quite sure that how much I liked it. To call parts of it slow would be to miss what Gilliam was trying to do; It's probably better to say that I wasn't always interested in going down the same paths he was. Considering the film's mixed reception, I'm not alone. That doesn't mean Parnassus isn't worth watching; just that its freeform narrative isn't for everyone.
Terry Gilliam's films are an acquired taste, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is perhaps his Gilliam-est. It is inventive, unique, and one of the most visually striking movies (and DVDs) I've ever seen. It deserves to be seen for those reasons. It also deserves to be seen for its outstanding performances, including Heath Ledger's. The DVD does much to pay tribute to the actor who died tragically young, and it is right to do so. I hope, however, that it will be seen on its own merits. It is not the easiest film to watch. Like Parnassus's Imaginarium, it requires the participant to bring their own imagination. But for those willing to engage Gilliam's world, there is plenty of joy to be found.
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