Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Especially considering the trauma and difficulties stemming from Heath Ledger's death during production and the fact that Terry Gilliam hadn't directed a good picture in more than a decade, the helmer has made a pretty good thing out of a very bad situation in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus." Synthesizing elements from several of his previous pictures, including "Time Bandits," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and "The Fisher King," the often overreaching director addresses a mad hatter of a story with the expected visual panache and what is, for him, considerable discipline. With Ledger onscreen more than might have been expected, the film possesses strong curiosity value bolstered by generally lively action and excellent visual effects, making for good commercial prospects in most markets.

"Imaginarium" joined the short list of films interrupted by the death of a star when Ledger died in January 2008, after an initial stretch of shooting in London and before the box office smash of "The Dark Knight." Gilliam struggled to figure out how to proceed before asking three other stars, Johnny Depp (who toplined for the director in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), Jude Law and Colin Farrell, to step in to fill Ledger's shoes.

Many Ledger fans certainly will turn out just to see his final performance. But it's genuinely interesting to see how, under duress, Gilliam contrived to work the other actors into the role. The way it plays out in the finished picture is that Ledger's incarnation of Tony, a man rescued from death who provides a possible way for Doctor Parnassus to win a wager with the devil, occupies the London-set framing story, while his three successors play versions of the character in the CGI sequences set in fantastical other dimensions. It all comes off well, without terribly disruptive emotional-mental dislocations.

That said, Tony is not a demanding dramatic role, nor a particularly flamboyant one like the Joker, so this can't legitimately be described as one Ledger's most striking performances. Like most of the other actors here, he's antic and frantic, dirty and sweaty, as the principals flail around trying to cope with their desperate straits.

At first, it seems Gilliam's worst habits will get the better of him once again, as the early hectic action centers on a small group of traveling players who move about the seedier neighborhoods of modern London in a 19th-century-style carnival wagon that unfolds to allow the performers out to try to snare its few derelict customers.

At the center of the clan is Doctor Parnassus himself (Christopher Plummer, with a Lear-like countenance), who a thousand years ago made a pact with the devil for immortality. The downside to the bargain, however, as Parnassus is reminded when the devil comes to collect in the person of Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, forever the hipster); is that, when the doctor's daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) turns 16, she becomes Satan's property. Unfortunately, her birthday is imminent, so Parnassus makes another deal, which allows him to save his daughter if he can deliver five souls to his alternate world of the imagination.

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