January 21, 2010

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (PG-13)
Terry Gilliam dresses a looney tunes story in a pair of circus-clown crazypants in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which, yes, is Heath Ledger’s last film.

And, I’ll give the movie this, it does a good job of dealing with Ledger’s replacements — Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell — who filled in the holes in the filming left when Ledger died. Because the movie takes place half in “reality” and half in the fantasy of the imaginarium, it is almost seamless to see Ledger enter this zooey wonderland and be transformed into Depp or Law.

What is an imaginarium? For the purposes of this movie, it’s a kind of trippy alternate universe populated with strange-lovely visuals and, toward the end, a choice that each participant must make. Make the wrong choice and your soul goes to Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) a.k.a. The Devil. Make the right choice and the winner is Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an ancient ringmaster in a kind of traveling sideshow act in modern-day (I think) London. His horse-drawn imaginarium picks a corner, unfolds, and the strangely outfitted crew a la HBO’s Carnivale (or perhaps them, a few decades earlier) attempts to lure in customers. Some get a lovely experience, some seem to disappear. The diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer), who might be as old as Parnassus, understands the magic behind it all, but helper Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Valentina (Lily Cole), who is Parnassus’ supposedly-nearly-16-year-old daughter, don’t quite understand what’s going on behind the magical mirror of their cart.

Parnassus has a weakness for gambling, so he is talked into a wager (winner takes Valentina) with Mr. Nick for the next person to get five souls. Meanwhile, the crew is joined by Tony (Ledger, mostly), a man they find hanging by his neck from a bridge. He isn’t dead but he is (allegedly) blank on who he is or why he was there. He, like Anton, soon finds himself enamored of Valentina, and he is at least partly tangled up in Parnassus’ deal with the devil.

I mean, I guess that’s the plot. There’s a good chance there’s something in there I’ve missed or misunderstood because the movie is such a psychedelic carousel ride of the bizarre. And, should you be interested, that is how I’d look at the movie going in — a crazy ride that you need to see to the end. Don’t trouble yourself too much with message or strict adherence to some kind of plot.

The Imaginarium is therefore a bit of a mess but it’s kind of a fascinating mess — one that frankly I’d like more if it were shorter and perhaps pause-able but one that’s interesting nonetheless. The performances are entrancingly odd and Ledger’s does suggest an actor moving into a richer stage in his career. So, if nothing else, this movie gives us a sense of what that might have looked like. B-

Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking. Directed by Terry Gilliam and written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.