Heath Ledger has a great line in his last film, one that eerily seems like an epitaph: “Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers.” Sadly, the gifted actor died halfway through filming Terry Gilliam’s recently released “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” His haunting presence looms heavily throughout the film but not enough to make it work.
Gilliam, known for his uninhibited visual craftmanship, doesn’t disappoint on that level. It is an extravaganza for the eyes. But a chaotic and confusing story line muddles the viewer’s mind. In this morality play, Christopher Plummer portrays Dr. Parnassus, the owner of a traveling theater troupe. Thousands of years ago he made a pact with the devil (Tom Waits — cool casting) to become immortal. Recently, he’s upped the ante, trading immortality for youth, but with grave consequences. The devil will take possession of his beloved daughter (Lily Cole) upon her 16th birthday. All bets are off, though, if Parnassus can claim five souls before the devil does.
One night, the troupe comes across Tony (Ledger) dangling from a hangman’s noose under a bridge (shivers). After they save his life, he joins the group, becoming an escort for those who choose to travel through Parnassus’ magic mirror. Once they land on the other side, they’re given a choice between good and evil. And that’s it in a nutshell, I think.
Confusion aside, the film benefits from some extremely savvy casting. Plummer, as the boozy barker, gives a fantastic performance. Waits’ raspy singing voice is pitch-perfect for the devil’s tongue, and supermodel Cole demonstrates she need not keep her day job. By now, I’m certain everyone is aware of the fact that Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped in for Ledger after his untimely death. What you may not know is that all three donated their salaries to Mr. Ledger’s young daughter, Matilda.
I’m hoping that “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is not the film by which audiences will want to remember Ledger. Rather, let “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Dark Knight” stand as testament to this immense talent, which is so sorely missed.
— Pam Nadon
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