The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Review

(2.5 STARS)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was reportedly more than halfway completed when its star, Heath Ledger, suddenly passed away. Instead of scrapping the film, director Terry Gilliam decided to push on and fill in the blanks of Ledger’s performance with CGI, makeup, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. The rewrites that were necessary to make this film even possible also are the film’s biggest downfall. The film is brimming with ideas, but the narrative doesn’t connect them in any coherent way. It chugs along and has you thinking everything will make sense eventually. But that time never comes. In fact, the film becomes more and more obtuse before reaching its nearly laughable climax. It’s visually stunning, but the visuals only go so far. There needs to be something else there, and Gilliam’s film just doesn’t deliver.

Imaginarium tells the story of a traveling theater troupe on the road in modern Britain. The big difference between most other troupes—one member of this group, the titular Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is immortal. He made a bet with the Devil (Tom Waits) over a millennium about the nature of man. Parnassus won, and his wish for immortality was granted. He realized, however, it was a trap, and he has been spending the next thousand years making new wagers with the Devil trying to win back his soul and protect his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).

She is nearing the age of 16, at which point she will be the property of the Devil, but one more wager is made—the first one to win over five souls will get Valentina. So Parnassus enlists the help of his daughter (unbeknownst to her are the stakes of the wager), the smitten Anton (Andrew Garfield), and sarcastic but loyal Percy (Verne Troyer), and Tony (Ledger), who the others find hanging by his neck under a bridge with no memory of himself or how he got there.

I’m not sure if any of that makes a lick of sense, but watching the film won’t make the plot any clearer or easier to understand. It just doesn’t make much sense. I appreciate what Gilliam was trying to do with the battle between good and evil, but he doesn’t execute this in a way that makes any sense. Our characters throw average people into the Imaginarium, a portal into their own imaginations in which they must make a choice. To be honest, I wasn’t clear what the choice meant, but it determined who won the bet.

What Imaginarium does right is restricted to the technical realm. Whenever someone enters the Imaginarium, we are transfixed. The film starts with two such scenes, and I thought I was in for something special. Everything was surreal, vibrant, and beautiful. As the film goes on and we see more people enter the Imaginarium, I remained astounded visually, but the narrative behind these trips grows more and more convoluted.

In terms of acting, there’s not a ton here worth remembering. It’s a shame this was Ledger’s final performance because it’s not very good. The great actor was amazing in The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain, among other films. His work here is just a blip on the radar. Christopher Plummer is very good in some scenes, but overall, his work is forgettable. He was much better in last year’s The Last Station. Andrew Garfield, the new Spider-Man, showed some charisma as Anton, and Verne Troyer has some good moments as Percy. Lily Cole, who plays Valentina, was terrible. She’s OK throughout the first two-thirds, but there’s a scene near the end when she literally dances with the Devil, and everything about it is wrong, especially her acting.

I almost feel bad giving this film a negative review because it feels so incomplete. So much of what is here is promising, but it just doesn’t come together. It engages the intellect to a certain degree, but I was more intrigued by the visuals than the mishmash that is the film’s story. It’s too original and risky to completely write off, but it’s just not good enough to give it a solid recommendation, so tread with caution.

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