The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Through a seedy part of London a strange horse-drawn wagon creeps through the night, setting up shop outside a club at closing time. Dressed as the messenger god Mercury, Anton (Andrew Garfield), accompanied by the dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer), encourages the crowd to ask the immortal Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) anything they wish. Drunk and in the mood to cause trouble, one of the revelers (Richard Riddell) instead attacks the stage and attempts to get a bit too friendly with Parnassus's daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). She flees into a foil mirror with him chasing after - only for him to find himself lost inside Parnassus's imagination. At the end of his journey he is offered a choice - stop drinking and get on with life or have just one more - and he fails.

Moving on to a late-night carnival, the performers also have rotten luck. Afterward, Percy finds Parnassus conversing with the mysterious Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). It turns out Mr. Nick has arrived to collect a debt from Parnassus, which would be Valentina herself. However, always the gambling man, Mr. Nick decides to give Parnassus one last chance to get out of the deal: whoever collects five souls before the stroke of midnight the next day (which signals Valentina's 16th birthday) wins. So, with little hope, Parnassus sets off to do just that - turn five people's lives around - while Mr. Nick attempts to collect his bounty by any means possible.

While attempting to leave London, the party suddenly finds a man hanging from under Blackfriars Bridge. They save him, finding a flute stuck in his throat and that the man has amnesia. However, it is not long before they discover that he is in fact Tony (Heath Ledger), a missing philanthropist. As his memory comes back, Tony falls in love with Valentina (and, much to Anton's chagrin, she reciprocates) and agrees to help Parnassus. However, when all appears to be going well, his past catches up to him in the form of the Russian mob, who believe he stole money from them.

Fleeing, Tony enters the Imaginarium, unwittingly giving the four mob members to Mr. Nick. Upon leaving, he finds that Anton has discovered more of the truth about him. Feeling betrayed, he flees back into the Imaginarium to meet his fate. Meanwhile, Parnassus ultimately comes to terms with is immortality and with Mr. Nick.

For those who thought Terry Gilliam had gone over to the dark side after Van Helsing, it was also known that he did that movie largely to fund this one. Heath Ledger was always his pick to play Tony, and as this is the first movie since 12 Monkeys that Gilliam also wrote the screenplay for, he sought to take full advantage of the fact that Ledger was maturing from a pretty face into an actual actor. Unfortunately, after filming just a handful of scenes, Ledger died of a drug overdose. Still, Gilliam soldiered on. Ledger's parts are still here, but the parts inside the Imaginarium have Tony's face changing each time, allowing him to also be played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Thus, Gilliam finished the film, and saved it from being the mess it could have been.

That said, anybody seeing this just for Ledger, and who happens to be unfamiliar with Gilliam's style of directing (especially his unique visuals) is likely to be confused and frustrated. For one of his creations this is quite a straightforward fantasy film, recalling in many ways The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Having access to CGI only lets Gilliam play around more, so it doesn't bother me here like it would otherwise. And, most telling, Christopher Plummer gives a great performance as the immortal, drunken Parnassus, while Tom Waits plays the devil to the hilt. Lily Cole is lovely and also does a great job, although I couldn't stop thinking of her as the Siren in the recent pirate episode of Doctor Who.

The only real problem I had with this movie is Heath Ledger. Maybe it was the fact that he never got to refine the character, but he plays Tony as mumbling and frustratingly annoying. Given time I could have cared about the character more (and his ultimate downfall), but as portrayed I found him constantly taking time away from the more interesting characters, namely Valentina, Parnassus and the devil.

It is not enough to bring the movie to a crashing halt. So, if you are in the mood for seeing what Terry Gilliam can still do, or just in the mood for a strange fantasy film, check this out. If you're looking for one last great Heath Ledger performance, then stick with The Dark Knight.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Duration: 122 minutes
Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits
Director: Terry Gilliam

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