The men in the mirror
Terry Gilliam, the veteran film director who cut his teeth as the animation wizard of television’s legendary Monty Python’s Flying Circus, has flirted with genius throughout his career and bedded her from time to time. In The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, he comes damn near to making an honest woman of her.
Gilliam doesn’t make perfect films. They’re too chaotic and impulsive for that. Parnassus has its share of annoying self-indulgences and lapses in focus. But this is a movie about the imagination, and there are two separate live currents of inspiration at work here, either one of which would distinguish it from the pack. One is the visual inventiveness that Gilliam has been flexing and honing throughout his career. The other is the resourcefulness with which he adjusted to the tragedy of the death of his leading man, Heath Ledger.
Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in January 2008, in the middle of shooting. At first a devastated Gilliam was ready to throw in the towel. But he was persuaded to go on, and his solution to the problem of the
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, showbiz fantasy, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3.5 chiles
loss of his star was inspired, haunting, and powerful. He brought in three actors to play different aspects of the suddenly untenanted character. All are close friends of Ledger and of Gilliam, all similar in type, all major stars and top performers in their own right: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
The device in the film that makes this sleight-of-hand possible is a magic mirror, part of the set of a traveling show — the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus— that lumbers around the seedy parts of London in a fantastic horse-drawn wagon. Doctor Parnassus (a sly, theatrical Christopher Plummer) is an ageless showman who has made a Faustian pact with the devil (an engaging TomWaits), dueling through the centuries with Mr. Nick over the winning of souls for good or evil. The Doctor’s company is made up of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole); his shill Anton (Andrew Garfield); and a feisty dwarf sidekick named Percy (Verne Troyer). With Valentina’s 16th birthday a couple of days away, and her soul pledged to the devil upon that milestone, Parnassus enters into a final wager with his old adversary to try to save her. The first to collect five souls by her birthday wins the bet.
Parnassus’ show is a sort of traveling fun house where audience members are enticed onto a stage that folds down at the back of the wagon and offered a taste of their dreams. When they pass through the magic mirror, they find themselves in a surreal wonderland where they access their fantasies through the mind of Doctor Parnassus. There are three fantasy episodes, involving different customers of the Imaginarium; and these sequences, which had been planned for the end of the shooting schedule, are the ones hosted by the all-star cast of substitutes.
The transitions are so smooth that at first you only have the vague sense that something is different. “Boy, he looks a lot like Johnny Depp in that shot!” Then you realize that it is Johnny Depp. (Depp apparently filmed his part in one day, during a delay in the schedule of Public Enemies. Part of the brainstorm behind using three actors was that stars with the stature to step in for Ledger would be working and only available for the briefest of stints.) The same seamlessness follows with Law and Farrell, each made up and costumed so as to slip into the role with minimal disturbance. The device works so well that it could have been the plan from the outset, rather than inspiration born of desperate circumstances.
Ledger and his backups play Tony, a shady, charismatic sort with a dubious past that involves Russian gangsters and foreshadows a dark turn to his character. He enters the picture literally at the end of his rope. He is discovered hanging by his neck from a noose beneath a London bridge. Tony is rescued by the Doctor’s team, and he joins the company, revitalizing the show with modern ideas of showmanship. Ledger’s performance is remarkable, crafty, funny, and sinister— an inspired piece of character work that underscores what a versatile and inventive actor he was.
Story and pacing are not Gilliam’s strong suits, and there are flabby stretches that slow down the movie. But his visual intelligence always saves the day. When we pass through the magic mirror, we are in an enchanted world where ladders stretch to the clouds, hills roll in a most unusual way, and dreams take unexpected turns.
The story of Doctor Parnassus, a showman who uses his imagination to match wits with the devil, can easily be read as a celebration of Terry Gilliam’s own life and work. He’s a maker of magic who has butted heads with Hollywood and its formulas for most of his career, eschewing explosions and car chases and witty repartee in the face of danger and choosing instead the kind of free-association whimsy that only the unfettered mind can produce. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus won’t please all the people all the time, but it strikes a blow for originality, ingenuity, and imagination.
The movie is shadowed and infused with the mournful knowledge of Ledger’s demise, and it is seasoned throughout with reminders, some coincidental, some perhaps inserted as tributes. Over on the fantastical side of the magic mirror, Depp’s Tony murmurs, “Nothing’s permanent. Not even death.”
Always look on the bright side of death: Jude Law