The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (PG-13)
Colin Farrell, sporting the same greasy ponytail and mustache he had in Crazy Heart, looks like he walked directly from that set into The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Following Heath Ledger's 2008 death, Farrell stepped in along with Johnny Depp and Jude Law to fill out the as-yet-unfilmed scenes involving Ledger's character.
The strategy was risky; even when done by design, seeing multiple actors play the same person can be jarring (Palindromes) or at least odd (I'm Not There, in which Ledger, incidentally, also appeared). Here, however, the transitions make sense in director Terry Gilliam's story about a magic man, his traveling road show, and a looking glass that transforms anyone who walks through it.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole isn't quite as successful. The visual and narrative whirlwind is too scattershot to fully engage, and it's difficult to grasp the gist of the plot among all the literal smoke and mirrors: In present-day London, an olde-tyme vaudeville act pops up attempting to draw audiences and their cash, with Valentina, a lovely, Victorian-clad Kewpie doll (Lily Cole); Percy, a multi-purposeful little person (Verne Troyer); and Anton, a face-painted barker (Andrew Garfield).
"Let Dr. Parnassus open your imagination; let him transport you!" Anton cries, as Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) meditates on stage in robes and a white beard, looking ancient. Parnassus made a deal long ago with the devil (Tom Waits), granting him immortality in exchange for handing over his future offspring on their 16th birthdays.
How exactly Parnassus "opens your imagination" is a mystery to both passers-by and viewers, but it involves a mirror leading those who dare enter it into a fantastical world in which both bliss and damnation can be found. More important, though, is the Faustian deal: Valentina is nearly 16 and unaware of her fate. But Satan, here called Mr. Nick, offers Parnassus a chance to keep his daughter with another wager, this one involving a race to, er, suck five souls into the netherworld. Or something.
Ledger's character, Tony, enters when Valentina and Anton find him in a noose over a bridge. (The sight — the actor's first scene — isn't pleasant.) Tony has amnesia but quickly proves himself adept at charming people into seeing the show and entering the mirror. There are hints that his past isn't quite honorable, involving a children's charity used for money-laundering.
Got that? It hardly matters. Gilliam is all about the fantasy, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is often a ravishing spectacle full of surreal scenes: free-standing ladders that stretch to the sky, verdant fields and creeks that look like a Monet, and, in a particularly Monty Python-esque scene, a giant head that unleashes a chorus line of singing and dancing bobbies, some of them in drag. Backgrounds fracture like glass, and peaceful images wither to gray menace as Mr. Nick takes over this otherworld.
Still, it's all sound and fury. You'll never be bored by the film, yet there are too many WTF? moments and messy plot turns to recommend it. Ledger's character is too murky for his performance to be remarkable. (Though Depp, in his short screen time, adds some welcome whimsy.)
Gilliam's most impressive achievement is delivering a movie that doesn't seem like it had to be patched together mid-production. But when it ends with not a director's credit but "A Film From Heath Ledger and Friends," a melancholic sentimentality is all you'll likely take away.