Not to be confused with that movie starring Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman (Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium), The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is perhaps best known as late actor Heath Ledger’s final role.
You may recall that his death occurred during production, in which case Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law stepped in to finish his role. The good news is that the transition from actor to actor is virtually seamless and works within the story’s construction perfectly.
The bad news? The film is still a bit of an all-over-the-map mess. To hear why, just
The movie follows Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal man who runs a circus-style sideshow where he invites people into his imagination via a mirror. Once there, the participants must make a choice — will they side with the devil-like Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), or are they good at heart and will therefore align with Dr. Parnassus?
Dr. P. struck a deal with Mr. Nick years ago that he would hand over his child Valentina (Lily Cole) once she reached her 16th birthday. Now days away, Nick shows up to collect with a proposition — if Parnassus can save five souls from his evil grasp (inside of Parnassus's imagination, naturally), then the doc can keep Valentina. With a stroke of good luck, Parnassus crosses paths with Tony (Heath Ledger), a former businessman with the gift of persuasion.
If all of this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Imaginarium is positioned as a morality tale, drawing connections to Parnassus as a god who allows free will, but what's the message? The story seems so concerned with being kooky and approaching larger, ambitious themes that it never grounds itself long enough to reach any "aha!" moment.
There are still a few bright spots. Tom Waits is particularly charming as a rascally, mustached Mr. Nick, and Andrew Garfield (as a young man pining for Valentina) has an on-screen charisma that makes him a promising new face to watch. I even appreciated much of the over-the-top surrealist scenery, which shouldn't be surprising given director Terry Gilliam's unique brand of whimsy (the imagery mimics Monty Python in several instances).
You can't blame the guy for having creativity; I just wish that Gilliam used a little more restraint here instead of working himself into a fantasy frenzy. The mumbo-jumbo overshadows even Ledger's performance, which could have been great if given some clearer development. Instead, I was left wishing that his brilliant turn in The Dark Knight had been the actor's swan song.
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Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics