Film Review: Ledger takes final, unfinished bow in 'Parnassus'

'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus' features Christopher Plummer (left) as Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as Valentina and Andrew Garfield as Anton.

Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics

"The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" features Christopher Plummer (left) as Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as Valentina and Andrew Garfield as Anton.

A remarkable salvage job, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" makes the tragic death of its star, Heath Ledger, almost irrelevant, in terms of the movie that appears on the screen.

Ledger, 28, died two years ago this month, about a third of the way through filming. Instead of shutting down the project, writer-director Terry Gilliam -- whose struggles on such films as "Brazil" and his unrealized "Don Quixote" are well documented -- revamped "Parnassus," and recruited Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to act as transformed versions of Ledger's character in the movie's "through the looking glass" fantasy sequences. The continuity is seamless, and the metamorphoses -- the actors really do resemble each other -- seem whimsical, not desperate.

'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus' features Christopher Plummer (left) as Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as Valentina and Andrew Garfield as Anton.

Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics

"The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" features Christopher Plummer (left) as Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as Valentina and Andrew Garfield as Anton.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is a fantastical morality tale, set in the present-day. It tells the story of Dr. Parnassus and his 'Imaginarium', a ...

Rating: PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking

Length: 122 minutes

Released: December 25, 2009 NY/LA

Cast: Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Christopher Plummer

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown

More info and showtimes »

Despite its surreal, mostly computer-generated spectacle, this is an intimate and extremely personal film: an allegorical autobiography, with Christopher Plummer cast as the title conjurer, a fanciful figure who, like Gilliam, fights to remain relevant in a (post-Monty Python) world that he feels wants to marginalize his handcrafted approach to art, his appreciation for myth and magic, his love of personal freedom, and his irreverent, noncomformist sense of humor. "He knew that times would change -- that one day, no one would want (his) stories," someone says in the film, as if speaking of Gilliam.

The story follows the seemingly immortal yet weary Parnassus, his pretty daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistant (Andrew Garfield) and his dwarf familiar (Verne Troyer) as they travel, like medieval players, via horse-drawn show wagon through depressing modern London, putting on simple public morality plays and passing the hat.

Ledger plays a charismatic, secretive hustler named Tony who upsets the balance of the troupe after he is rescued from an apparent suicide attempt by Parnassus' followers. (The sight of Ledger hanging from a noose is the one jarring reminder of the actor's untimely death.) Tony's loyalties are uncertain as he joins various customers inside the magic mirror that is the centerpiece of Parnassus' traveling show, where customers become lost in crazy landscapes of their own imagination as they face the temptations of good and evil in the age-old battle for souls between Parnassus and the doctor's nemesis, Mr. Nick (played by Tom Waits, with an appropriately devilish glint in his eye).

The collage animation pieces Gilliam produced for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" were as distinctive as they were bizarre. His live-action films ("Time Bandits," "12 Monkeys") were similarly inventive, whether the actors (as in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") or the effects ("The Adventures of Baron Munchausen") dominated. "Parnassus" is as identifiably "Gilliamesque" as anything the director's created; co-written by Charlie McKeown, it's Gilliam's first film from his own original script since "Brazil" in 1985. One might say that "Parnassus" is to Gilliam as "eXistenZ" -- another thematic palate-cleanser -- was to David Cronenberg.

I'm a fan of circus fantasies (see also "The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "Torture Garden"), but "Parnassus" quickly becomes tiresome, and its veneration of the storyteller as the being who keeps the world alive through the magic of imagination is trite. Its computer-generated visions -- a dismembered hand hoists a character into a sky of orbiting jellyfish; a materialistic woman is lost in a landscape of giant dress shoes -- are no more startling or "imaginative" than what one would find in a wacky TV commercial. They look like something any artist with an active imagination and a slippery mouse could create. "Parnassus" may be an unprecedented distillation of Gilliam's ideas about art and life, but as presented here, those ideas are less than compelling.

"The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" is exclusively at the Malco Paradiso.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

© 2010 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.