‘Imaginarium’ takes viewers on giddy, enjoyable ride

22 02 2010

Photo courtesy of Thescorecardreview.com

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, Andrew Garfield & Verne Troyer

Release Date: Jan. 9, 2010 (wide release)

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus never was going to have a chance to be a film released in its own right and judged on its own merits. From the moment the news broke that one of its main characters died from an accidental drug overdose on Jan. 22, 2008 this movie was always going to be known by its one defining factor – it’s the last movie Heath Ledger ever filmed.

And then the main question arose – What happens to a film when your star passes away with only a third of filming completed?

Filming was temporarily suspended as Gilliam quickly worked to reconfigure the script to keep Ledger’s role intact but also complete the movie.

In the end, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped into the role at different points in time during filming and the three, in an act of chivalry, donated their salaries to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda.

Once the cast details were worked out, a second question arose – Just how does four actors portraying the same character work?

And the answer to that question is – quite well.

The movie, quite obviously, surrounds Dr. Parnassus (Plummer), a man said to have seen 1,000 years, and his troupe of actors who travel London trying to entice people to enter a mirror into the world of their imagination. The troupe consists of Percy (Troyer), who has been with Parnassus since the beginning and knows his darkest secret, Anton (Garfield), a sleight of hand expert, and Valentina (Cole), Parnassus’ almost 16-year-old daughter.

And there’s the rub. Parnassus made a deal with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) for everlasting life once upon a time, but when he was old and fragile he met the love of his life and returned to Mr. Nick for another shot at youth, which he spent with Valentina’s mother, who died in childbirth at the miraculous age of 60. But that youth came at a price and Mr. Nick was to take possession of any child Parnassus fathered upon their 16th birthday.

As his daughter is very close to this deadline, Parnassus is understandably concerned and jumps at Mr. Nick’s new wager (for they are both ever-betting men) that whoever claims 5 souls first will gain possession of Valentina.

The troupe, however, has fallen on hard times and can hardly induce people to travel into the world of their imagination – in which they are offered a choice between a challenging task which will reap a reward at a later point in time which Parnassus sets up to claim their soul or the instant gratification of offering their soul to Mr. Nick. That is, until they meet Tony (Ledger).

Tony, who eerily enough was found hanging underneath a bridge, but is not dead because he lodged a golden pipe in his trachea to keep the rope from crushing it, completely overhauls Parnassus’ show and leads the troupe to an upscale mall where he woos a wealthy lady through the mirror and follows after her to see what all the fuss is about.

And here the audience is introduced to Gilliam’s solution to Ledger’s death. As the imaginarium transforms the imagination of its first entrant into reality, Ledger’s Tony is no longer necessary. Instead, the woman has transformed Tony into Johnny Depp – who plays the role much like he plays any other slightly comedic role with a mixture of Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Edward Scissorhands.

Each time Tony steps into the imaginarium he becomes a different person. His second trip leaves him looking like Jude Law – who effortlessly steps in to fill Ledger’s shoes with the most organic of the “other Tony” performances – while the third presents Colin Farrell in the role – who falls into the role only a little less seamlessly than Law.

With Tony’s help, Parnassus manages to capture 4 souls, but Mr. Nick has kept up with 4 souls of his own.

Parnassus finally decides it is time to tell Valentina about her fate, which causes her to lose faith in her father and reject his side of the imaginarium. After a scuffle, she, Tony and Anton end up in the mirror together living out Tony’s fantasy and dealing with the consequences of his decisions.

The movie is beautifully staged and shot as Gilliam has an eye for design, and the sets and costumes – both of which are up for Academy Awards – add dynamic value to the message of the film.

In addition, Plummer, who’s Parnassus is overshadowed by the Ledger legacy, is wonderful as a man seeking redemption, as are Cole and Garfield in their roles which call for an innocence tinged with disbelief.

The only dull spot in the entire film is Percy, who proves that Verne Troyer might actually do his best work when he’s silent a la Mini Me in the Austin Powers series. It’s unclear whether the glaring interruptions in action each time Troyer speaks is due to his underdeveloped character or a miscast of his role, but either way his lines grate against what is otherwise a good, if not a little trippy, movie.

As a whole, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is an astounding tribute to Heath Ledger and his acting ability. As he came off of an Oscar-winning role as The Joker in The Dark Knight it would have been easy for him to stay on the course of dark and twisted souls as Tony fits the bill as well, but he instead backs off to play Tony with an air of irony and light-heartedness as he is given what he thinks is a second chance with the troupe in the face of dismal circumstances. It is clear that he had not yet realized his full potential as an actor when he left us.

Still, Dr. Parnassus is an appropriate send-off to the man who brought us the Joker, Ennis del Mar (Brokeback Mountain), Gabriel Martin (The Patriot) and Patrick Verona (10 Things I Hate About You). Bits and pieces of each of his performances are seen through Tony and while one could pinpoint the exact moment Patrick Verona burst through in Tony’s skin it does not overpower Ledger’s final bow across the big screen.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a fantastic representation of how to incorporate multiple actors in one role, as well as a giddy jaunt into the off-kilter mind of Gilliam – who began his career as a member of Monty Python. Aside from the lackluster performance by Troyer, the film benefits from strong performances by veteran actors and new comers alike, and the brilliant colors of the imaginarium world offset the bleak and dismal London side of the performance, reminding viewers that an escape is as close as closing your eyes and passing through your own mirror.

Final verdict: Good