Suffering the double whammy of being directed by Terry Gilliam (forever the attracter of on-set misfortune – Don Quixote, anyone?) and the untimely death of its star, Heath Ledger, halfway through shooting, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has had a troubled upbringing. But with the actor's tragic passing, its unremarkable place on 2009's cinema calendar was upped by being Ledger's second posthumous and final movie, unfairly burdening the film with the anticipation of it being something great.
It's not great. But it is a good movie, and probably Gilliam's best in over a decade. Also, bittersweet though it may be, Ledger's inability to complete his work is remedied in an incredibly inventive manner that arguably improves what would have been; the multiple facets of Ledger's mysterious Tony in the Imaginarium is a great inflection, and Gilliam deserves credit for this creative retooling, and for the fact that the haste in which it was applied is not at all noticeable. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell (who all donated their wages to his daughter, Matilda) honorably step in to play the alternates, paying poignant tribute to their friend. All are good (though Farrell's Irish accent is far too thick to flatten), Depp probably being the best, but its all mimicry; Ledger is the one who does all the work. His Tony, performed with a flawless English accent, is a great part for him, possessing all the characteristics of vintage Ledger – charismatic, droll, physically erratic, etc. It's not on par with his work in Brokeback Mountain or The Dark Knight, but seeing how much fun he must have been having, seeing that wily smile, makes it a none the more fitting goodbye to the man.
The multi-personas also, despite sounding like classically contrived Gilliam, actually turn out to be the most credible part of the movie; they represent the most fascinating of the film's many mediations on reality (Gilliam is always at best when toying with reality, and this is no exception) - different parallels of the human psyche (or at least Tony's) are all challenged, and make for genuinely thought-provoking stuff. The rest of the film, however, is a bit of a patchwork; provocative but hopelessly overwrought. As always with the Brazil director, you can't fault his ambition, but he's always been patently unable to neatly combine all of his ideas into a satisfying whole.
His biggest mistake is going contemporary. Gilliam's sense of humor, being that of a Python affiliate's, has always been well-authenticated by a theatrical and undeniably British zaniness. But here, we get modern social satire in the form of Tony's revamped version of the group's travelling act, and we get conversational verbosity (particularly in the poor improvisation of a pointless Verne Troyer), and it simply doesn't suit. Better are the moments where a group of "violence-loving" coppers dance about in skirts or in the inebriated ramblings of Doctor Parnassus.
Why Gilliam didn't stick to his personal brand of appealing outlandishness is a shame, and a mystery, considering his fine cast of comically-endowed Brits, with glorious thespian Christopher Plummer at its head as the titular Doc. Of all the actors on hand here, Plummer is the one who best excels with the material. Playing a man who has lived over one-thousand years, he manages to convincingly carry himself with the weight of that time, his sallow-skinned and ravaged face, heavy, sad eyes, and world-weary frown scarily naturalistic. He's a heart-breaking character, and Plummer makes him an uncompromising presence.
Also impressive are newcomers Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole, and Tom Waits as Mr Nick, the Devil himself. The notorious singer has never really had any good roles to work with in his career, and, in all fairness, his talents as an actor dictates just as much, but he's simply perfect here, his Machiavelli stealing all the scenes he wonderfully chews with his smarminess. It's not exactly a creation of noteworthy prowess (and neither is the character – the cavalier, smooth-talking, gentleman-like villain, who relishes fomenting, is very overdone), but he's just such a hoot and effortlessly magnetic. He's pretty much the best thing here, and worth the admission price.
Along with the cast, the visuals, a branch you can expect brilliance in with Gilliam, are a real saving grace. The special effects in the Imaginarium aren't extraordinary, but that's the point; it's an accentuated, animated reality – one's greatest dreams (and nightmares) aren't supposed to be realistic. And few images this year are more stirring than of a harrowed Parnassus wandering through a vast snow-plain, giving up his struggle at a crossroad sign that reads "High Road" or "Low Road".
It's a very entertaining movie, and thematically sound (it manages to make existentialism and solipsism accessible), and endearingly whimsical in tone and style. Unfortunately, it frequently degenerates into a muddle, the many ideas it juggles far too incoherently transcended. Thankfully, however, after the monotonous middle act, the movie picks up steam and the great Imaginarium sequences arrive to compel. And, in the end, it's a sheer miracle that the movie got made; the fact that Gilliam didn't give up, that he persevered and single-handedly defeated one of the worst production catastrophes, and that he gave Ledger his swansong, is something truly amazing. And it is for that reason that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will be remembered.