Terry Gilliam, whose new film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” is Heath Ledger’s last, is one of the rare directors who suffers from having too many ideas. Typically his films, which also include “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” are so manically charged with curlicue plotlines and outré visuals that it’s difficult to settle into the experience and enjoy the ride. Every movie he makes has a do-or-die quality, as if his head would explode if he didn’t get everything in it onto the screen.
“Parnassus” began shooting in London in 2007 and came to a standstill when Ledger died in January 2008, before “The Dark Knight” certified his stardom (and won him a posthumous Oscar). Ledger was playing a character named Tony, an itinerant who is rescued from death and becomes a crucial player in a traveling magic show lorded over by Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, looking like Don Quixote). A thousand years ago Parnassus made a contract with the devil and now, in the guise of Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, in full gravelly voice mode), the deal has come due. Unless Parnassus, with Tony’s help, can fend off the devil’s contracted claim to the doctor’s daughter (Lily Cole), all is lost.
Ledger’s death prompted from Gilliam a rather ingenious solution. Since all the contemporary scenes in London with Ledger had already been shot, Gilliam created a backstage world that opens into a phantasmagoric neverland, a world of bliss and danger.
Whenever Tony steps into these worlds, sometimes with goggle-eyed patrons in tow, he is no longer played by Ledger. Instead, Gilliam recruited Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. (Depp is the first to appear, about an hour into the movie.)
Since Gilliam’s movies are so discontinuous and knockabout anyway, this tactic doesn’t seem misplaced. The three alternate Tonys give the film a jazzy modernity. And the truth is, their appearance is a relief – Ledger seems dispirited throughout and, knowing what we know, it’s difficult to watch him.
This is the first film where Gilliam has really gone in for digital effects, and the results are less spangly than you might imagine. He seems less interested in wowing us now. The character Gilliam most closely identifies with is Parnassus himself, a mad dreamer forever riven between his imagination and the necessity to sell it. Parnassus, in a way, is a species of movie director; he opens our eyes to other worlds. At the same time, Parnassus is poised to finally leave this world.
Especially coming from a director as ornery as Gilliam, this is a dewy slice of sentimentalism, and yet it resonated with me. I think it’s because mortality, both real and imagined, is so much a part of this movie. Parnassus is bidding farewell and Plummer does his best to give it a Shakespearean heft.
I realize circumstance, to some extent, forced Gilliam’s hand, but I still wish “Parnassus” had been simpler. In the past, especially in “The Fisher King,” Gilliam has shown himself capable of directing scenes of breathtaking emotionality without resorting to a single dreamscape or camera pirouette.
The best moments in “Parnassus” are not otherwordly but worldly. It’s a movie about a dying magician and the death of magic. This is a subject that obviously means a lot to Gilliam, and he makes us feel it in our bones. Along with Ledger, William Vince, one of the film’s producers, died during production. Gilliam dedicates the film to their memories. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language, and smoking.)