Tuesday, September 22, 2009


(Gala Presentation)
(Canada/France/United Kingdom, 122 minutes, 2009)
Written by: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Lilly Cole, Andrew Garfield, Vern Troyer, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell

It’s unfortunate—but inevitable--that The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus will forever be known as Heath Ledger’s Last Movie, because it’s much more than that: in this age of ridiculously extended titles, it might not be too much to suggest the additional slug line How Gilliam Got His Groove Back. I hate using moth-ridden critical terminology like “return to form”—Gilliam, if anyone, is a filmmaker who delights in avoiding labels—but after his bewildering Tideland, which allowed him to indulge in exactly the kind of deliberately arty, inaccessible, maddeningly self-indulgent affront to expectations and compromises he obviously needed to get out of his system in order to refuel his creative cylinders, his newest is every bit the sumptuous, sensory delight as his beloved classics Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (no coincidence that the script reunites Gilliam with Charles McKeown after nearly two decades). Considering its troubled production, the film is remarkably sure-footed and near-seamless in its mode shifts, as if the narrative retooling demanded by Ledger’s sudden passing mid-production were part of the already-trippy conceit from its inception.

One thousand year old Doctor Parnassus (a splendidly robust Plummer) presides over his traveling theatre troupe whose stage show tempts the public with the opportunity to enter an imaginary world based upon their own hopes and fears via a magical mirror. Passage is no mere illusion waiting to be debunked by Penn and Teller, no sirree—Parnassus’ powers are real, bestowed upon him by the Devil himself (Waits as “Mr. Nick”, tearing into every line like he’s gargled with fresh brimstone) centuries earlier. A deal was made after an especially high gambling debt: Parnassus would hand over his daughter Valentina (a doll-like Cole, suggesting there was another line of Tyrell Corp. replicants) to the underworld on her sixteenth birthday.

Setting up in contemporary London, Parnassus comes upon Tony (Ledger, who based his take on the role on former British PM Tony Blair, whom he regarded as a “deluded liar”), a charismatic stranger suffering from amnesia. Reluctantly welcomed into the troupe by driver/dwarf Percy (Troyer) and sleight-of-hand magician Anton (Garfield), he devises a plan to dupe five souls into taking Valentina’s place via the mirror to Paranassus’ “imaginirium”. But Mr. Nick is never far behind…

With only limited success in The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam has now embraced digital FX in a major way—those given to the currently-fashionable lament that CG has ruined filmmaking should find their fears challenged by the pizzaz given to his Pythonesque visions by the addition of ray tracing, texture mapping, and the “Z” axis—at times, it’s as if Magritte and Dali have manifested themselves as After Effects plug-ins…

Gilliam was lucky in that he had already shot the majority of Ledger’s “real world” scenes first, with the FX-heavy other-side-of-the-mirror episodes to follow. This allowed him to recast Ledger’s character with other actors for the fantasy bits (a simple tweak in Act One established the change in physiognomy on the part of the traveler once he went through the looking glass, and presto! The rest of the film was set). Ledger’s fellow actor friends Jude Law, Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp volunteered to each manifest a side of Tony’s malignant personality and it all works delightfully.

It’s hard not to envision a real-life Mr. Nick trying to stop the production: Ledgers’ passing was followed by producer William Vince’s death just one week after shooting wrapped, and during post-production, Gilliam himself was hit by a car and broke his back. But passion prevailed and Dr. Parnassus ends, wonderfully, with a title card crediting the production to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends”.

©Robert J. Lewis 2009