The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Review)

Terry Gilliam takes us on a surprising, delightful journey

Terry Gilliam is popularly considered the victim of a terrible curse that brings disaster down on his nearly every film. Gilliam’s editing battles over his masterpiece Brazil are the stuff of legend. So hellacious were the director's attempts at making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that a documentary (Lost in La Mancha) was made as a sad document of that film's doomed fate.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus automatically receives the status of a notable film as the late Heath Ledger’s final performance. That this trippy movie opens with Ledger's character Tony Shepherd hanging by a noose from a London bridge inevitably lends a ghostly air to the proceedings. Shepherd is on the run. Some angry men want to kill him, which is understandable since his work overseeing a children's charity was conducted in less than savory ways.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the aged leader of a small traveling performance troupe that includes his nearly-of-age daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus's assistant. Anton is hopelessly smitten with Valentina. The troupe doesn't know that Shepherd has perfected faking his own suicide when they “rescue” him from the aforementioned bridge.

Doctor Parnassus is a gambling addict and devout Buddhist monk who makes bets with the Devil, aka Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Mr. Nick being Mr. Nick, he lures Parnassus into a pernicious bet with Valentina as the unwitting prize. The first bettor to collect five souls wins. With Shepherd's help, the Imaginarium attracts four unsuspecting women to enter a surreal land through a magic mirror. It's in this abstract dimension that souls are claimed, and where Ledger's character takes on different qualities as performed alternately by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.

For the first time in a decade, since 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam has made a film that delivers on his reputation as a master of cinematic fantasy. While he hasn't made a flawless film, Gilliam manages to preserve the memory of Ledger in an appropriate and inspired way. He takes us on a journey we're happy to take for every surprise, large and small, that the film has in store. Grade: B

Opens Jan. 8 at the Esquire Theatre.