Actor Heath Ledger died halfway through the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and the fact that he enters the picture with a noose around his neck, about to commit suicide, is a sad accident — a brief intrusion of melancholic reality into a movie that is all fluffy fantasy.
Soon, though, you forget all about Ledger’s tragic death and get lost — literally — in director Terry Gilliam’s vision. No matter who happens to be before the cameras, Gilliam is always the star of his movies: He takes the auteur theory to flattening extremes. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a step up from Gilliam’s two previous pictures (the ineffectual The Brothers Grimm and the torturous Tideland), but it still feels like a cobbled collection of ideas and conceits rather than a stand-alone story.
Imaginarium lacks the focus and pacing of Gilliam’s best films (Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys), the sense that the movie is actually going somewhere, and even many of its whimsical interludes into magical landscapes feel dull. A shot of a man walking on stilts so tall his head is in the clouds makes for a lovely image, but Gilliam doesn’t do anything with it, and the whole movie is like that — free-floating, disconnected fancy.
Based on a script by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, Imaginarium focuses on the eponymous doctor (played by Christopher Plummer), a traveling showman who invites audiences to step through his magic mirror and encounter wonderful, wish-fulfilling sights on the other side — heaven on Earth, tailor-made for each customer’s deepest desires. Visitors with less-than-pure hearts, however, may not like what they find inside the imaginarium.
Parnassus has made a secret bet with the devil (Tom Waits), with the soul of his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) hanging in the balance. She, along with two other travelers (Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield) and the suicidal amnesiac (Ledger) form his troupe of assistants, all unaware of the dark forces in which Parnassus dabbles.
The setup is promising, but Gilliam allows Imaginarium to circle lazily in on itself, never providing the narrative momentum to carry the director’s surfeit of wondrous visuals — such as a palace that breaks into pieces and floats away into a vast darkness or a shopper’s vision of paradise: A world filled with giant shoes, diamond bracelets and floating pearls.
As Tony, the amnesiac whose memory is slowly returning, Ledger helps ground the film with a raggedy charm, but the spell is broken whenever Tony steps through the mirror and turns into another actor (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, in turn), a brusque reminder of the truth beyond the screen. Gilliam does what he can, but The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus never becomes the transporting trip the movie was meant to be: Instead, it’s a special effects-laden elegy.
Cast: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Tom Waits.
Director: Terry Gilliam.
Screenwriters: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown.
Producers: William Vince, Amy Gilliam, Samuel Hadida.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.