I went into "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" eager to see Heath Ledger’s final curtain call.
That eagerness retreated rather quickly. I think it was right around the time Ledger’s character was introduced, hanging lifelessly from a noose underneath a London bridge. Unfortunately Ledger’s death casts a pall over director Terry Gilliam’s entire film and his patented madcap flights of fancy cannot erase a sense of melancholy that permeates the whole production.
It certainly does not help matters that the film itself is a complete mess.
It’s a shame because the story is certainly promising and right up Gilliam’s alley. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has spent his entire immortal life losing bets to the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Dr. P’s latest wager is about to cost him his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), with Mr. Nick poised to collect his prize as soon as she turns 16. Parnassus makes a last desperate wager in the hopes that he can save Valentina and avoid giving the devil his due.
Starring:Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits Lily Cole, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
Using his incredible powers, which allow people to literally explore their own imaginations, Parnassus has to "win" five souls before Mr. Nick. The arrival of the mysterious and smooth-talking Tony (Ledger) to his troupe gives Parnassus hope that he can save his daughter and finally beat Mr. Nick at a game that seems perpetually rigged against him.
The film comes alive when Tony is escorting unexpecting patrons through their own imaginations. Due to Ledger’s death, Tony is played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in the scenes set in the Imaginarium, which is a shame as they are by far the film’s best. It is rather sad that every time Tony leaps into the Imaginarium and Ledger is replaced with another actor, the film becomes infinitely more fun. Farrell in particular is captivating, easily capturing Tony’s snake-like and sleazy charm as he struts through his scenes with a movie star’s confidence.
Unfortunately Ledger does not prove as capable. Gilliam allowed him to improvise most of his dialogue and it shows. Ledger’s performance seems to be coming from several different directions at once, as if he wasn’t quite sure of what to make of the character. It is sad to see Ledger get upstaged so completely in his last film, but Depp, Law and particularly Farrell simply have a spark that stands in sharp contrast to Ledger’s muddled and confused performance.
Much of the blame should be placed on Gilliam. He seems disinterested in the scenes in the real world. While I can understand his enthusiasm for the more fantastical moments in the film, he forgets to develop a narrative thread. Fantastical images are great, but fantastical images that exist in an engaging narrative are better. Gilliam sadly seems to have forgotten that, and the film veers wildly from scene to scene with no real connection to each other.
While the film doesn’t work, it’s hard not to admire it. It cannot have been easy finishing the film after losing Ledger so tragically and to see Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell work so hard to honor their friend is quite exceptional. It’s not their fault that they upstage him a bit in the process.
If you really want to see Heath Ledger’s last performance, I recommend you stay home instead and watch "The Dark Knight", "Brokeback Mountain" and simply admire how full of life Ledger and his characters are.