Though many people see Heath Ledger's brilliant performance in The Dark Knight as his last hoorah, the late actor has one more trick up his sleeve: an amnesiac performer in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Sadly, the movie doesn't serve as an adequate send-off for the beloved man.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is about a traveling group of performers, including the title character, played by Christopher Plummer. The magical doctor is a thousand years old and is dreading the arrival of his daughter's 16th birthday; in exchange for immortality, he promised the Devil (played by Tom Waits) his daughter's soul on that date. Salvation appears in the form of Ledger, however, whom they find hanging near death under a bridge. While Ledger and the daughter (Lily Cole) hit it off, Dr. Parnassus makes a new bet with his nemesis: the first to claim five souls wins, and the winner gets the girl.
As with most Terry Gilliam films, Dr. Parnassus is extremely imaginative; long segments take place in an imaginary world (hence the title) where anything can and does happen. The special effects aren't great, but they add, likely intentionally so, to the experience. The movie looks and feels like a movie of another time, and even the performances have a nostalgic quality to them.
Unfortunately, as with most Terry Gilliam films, the final product is lacking. As unique and imaginative as Gilliam's ideas are, the man struggles to put them into a cohesive story with strong narrative. As a result, and as engaging as some moments are, Dr. Parnassus is shockingly dull, pointless and, ultimately, confusing. Each scene on its own is fine, but there's no synergy, no purpose.
Ledger delivers a fine performance, but his character is so uninteresting it doesn't matter. Apparently he adlibbed half his lines on set, and his dedication to the role shows; it's just a shame the movie had to be so unremarkable. Oddly, Ledger's character is much more entertaining when it's played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Well, not Farrell, but we'll get to that later.
After Ledger's death, Depp, Law and Farrell signed on to play his character in the scenes that had yet to be shot. Gilliam, frankly, lucked out that his movie is as weird as it is, as replacing Ledger in certain scenes actually complement the plot. Depp is fun to watch, as is Law; both bring great enthusiasm to the role.
Unfortunately, when Farrell shows up to play Heath, the movie unravels into a confusing mess. Farrell isn't to blame as the problems lay solely in Gilliam's script, but the turn of events in the last 20 minutes are completely off-putting. SPOILER ALERT. After building up Ledger's character as the protagonist for an hour and a half, Gilliam suddenly turns him into the antagonist. It's completely confusing and makes no sense.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a boring, remarkably flat film that does little to cherish Ledger's memory. It has its moments, but devolves into a jumbled mess by the end. The only saving grace is Verne Troyer, who provides some bursts of hilarity among the dreary landscape Gilliam has painted.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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