— by MARIUSZ ZUBROWSKI —
Heath Ledger’s death turned heads back in January of last year; just a couple months before the release of the hyped “The Dark Knight,” in which Ledger played the iconic Batman villain, The Joker — for which he later won an Oscar (becoming one of two actors to win the prestigious award after death).
It was also revealed that Heath Ledger acted in yet another film, this one being directed by the mind behind one of my favorite movies “12 Monkeys” — Terry Gilliam.
In “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Gilliam offers up a platter of irresistible eye-candy and a multitude of great performances in order to mask the stench of otherwise stale story-telling that is sure to benefit from the news that this is the last performance from the now-infamous award-winning actor.
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” begins with the troupe of traveling showmen, which includes Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, Andrew Garfield as Anton, and Lily Cole as Valentina, the young daughter of the mysterious doctor as they stop in front of a bar in modern-day England. A stumbling drunk jumps on the caravan, which doubles as a stage, in order to take a closer look at the beautiful Valentina, but to his surprise, she leads him through a magical mirror that teleports into a world created by a person’s individual imagination. Now the reason I mention the drunk is because what happens next is perhaps the most memorable of the scenes for me, and I feel that this won’t spoil it for anyone as it happens about six or seven minutes into the movie; the drunk enters a bar which explodes in the spirit of classic mobster films. Perhaps this scene is so memorable is because there is an abrupt contrast between cardboard trees and Micheal Bay-style explosions and it leaves you saying “What just happened?” Sadly, most of the film suffers from the same problem and it seems as if Gilliam chose dazzling imagery over thoroughly explaining the plot.
Later on, Heath Ledger’s character, Tony (who later is played by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law), is introduced in a less-than-pleasant manner. He is found hanging under a bridge, a discouraging reminder of the ill-fated actor’s apparent suicide. Once Tony is found and joins the troupe, things begin to pick up speed as it is uncovered that Doctor Parnassus made a deal with the devil, who is nicknamed Mr. Nick and is played excellently by actor Tom Waits. In exchange for his daughter when she celebrates her 16nth birthday, Doctor Parnassus is granted immortality. Luckily for Doctor Parnassus, Mr. Nick is a gambling man and he proposes a game in which they both compete for souls and whoever gets five souls wins and, of course, if Doctor Parnassus wins he gets to remain with his daughter.
The general message of the film is that people are too busy these days to acknowledge the birth-given right of imagination. This imagination built up our society but now people are too jaded to look into its enchantment. In one of the film’s examples, a young man plays a video game as Anton is transforming a bouquet of flowers into a living creature, and the child does not even notice. However, in a later scene, a group of woman that the charming Tony brings to the mirror and astonished after going through the magical mirror throw their purses and money away, and that is the goal of Doctor Parnassus.
Though it never explained why Mr. Nick needs five souls (besides the fact that he loves games of chance), it is evident throughout the film — he is not a devil in the religious sense of the word but instead is the messenger of death for imagination. His ultimate goal is the complete opposite of Parnassus’: an age of mindless drones that discarded their own chance of “immortality” (as in, reputation) in order to submit to the cheap pleasures of money and fur-coats.
Director Terry Gilliam focuses more on symbolism rather than actual story to get his point across, and by doing so, he makes the film much more forgettable. The character’s (except for Tony) back-stories are never really explained and some plot-elements are abandoned altogether in order to put in another beautiful dream-scape. Just like Gilliam’s “Twelves Monkeys,” the message of the film does have a lasting effect but the initial plot-line of the film does not.
Ledger gave it his all in his role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” and even though his final performance isn’t quite as memorable, it’s still quite good. At first, Tony is made to seem like a good guy caught in a bad situation: he’s found nearly dead and he has amnesia, but it’s later revealed that he has some severe demons and this is what makes him such an interesting character, and it begs the question “can a person really change?”
Due to Ledger’s death during filming, Gilliam chose to add actors Collin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law into the cast as Tony. Each one of them plays him through a different aspect in his life and they all add their own spice into the character. Depp furthers Tony’s charming persona, whereas Law and especially Farrell magnify his quest for greed.
Tom Waits is also great at playing Mr. Nick, who reminds me of a cartoon villain. He appears at the wrong moments, quite comically, while smoking a cigarette. He’s no Joker, but in a broader sense, Mr. Nick is much more dangerous than the deranged clown.
As Tony helps Doctor Parnassus with his game with the devil, he falls in love with Valentina, who is just boring. Lily Cole adds no idiosyncrasies to the typical damsel in distress that is popular in many fantasy films. Her friend, Anton, who finds himself to be jealous of the charismatic Tony, is not only boring but he’s also annoying. Andrew Garfield just does an atrocious job at playing the character, and thus it makes so much easier to root for the smooth-talking Tony.
Plummer does a better job at playing Doctor Parnassus, who can be described as a spiritual guru except for the fact that he’s become a drunk. I would have liked some more back-story into his character, but the film already runs at two hours, and an additional running time would make the film much more tedious.
Looking past some bad story-telling, the movie’s main highlight is its indulgent visual direction. The landscapes of the imaginarium (the land inside the mirror) are similar to the ones in Peter Jackson’s latest film “The Lovely Bones,” in which things such as shoes and air-balloons are monstrous set-pieces thus showing an inside look into the conscience of the person who is experiencing the land. But in this film, we are also shown the dark side of it all, and this is all Mr. Nick’s doing. These dream-scapes are quickly desecrated by places such as pubs and cheap motels, and this once again reinforces Gilliam’s social commentary.
It’s a shame when anyone dies in the prime of his or her life and cinema lost a great talent on January 2008. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is not a bad movie, but it could have better. It’s certainly not the finale that was expected by fans of the deceased actor, but it’s a finale nonetheless. The film is plagued with uneven story-telling and some bad performances, but there are good aspects of the film: the beautiful visuals and the surprisingly effective way of portraying Tony (regardless of Gilliam’s motives for doing so). So as the movie ends in the disheartening message “A Film By Heath Ledger and Friends,” we are forced to bid Heath adieu.
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