Movie reviews: 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' and 'Crazy Heart'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

The first glimpse filmgoers get of Heath Ledger in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is an unfortunate one. The actor, who died two years ago, hangs from Blackfriars Bridge, his seemingly lifeless body swaying in the icy London breeze.

Ledger's character, an apparent suicide dressed in a Savile Row suit, with odd hieroglyphs tattooed on his forehead, is found by a band of traveling carnies whose leader, the titular Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), remarks upon seeing him, "He's dead. Leave him." They don't, and their efforts to revive the attractive stranger even lead to a bit of classic physical comedy when Ledger's character is revived by one of Parnassus's itinerant players, only to knock himself out when he springs to life and promptly bumps his head on the underside of the group's wagon.

"He's alive!" one character exclaims. "Well, he was," another retorts moments later.

This macabre, funny and eerie entrance turns out to be altogether fitting for Ledger, who, like the character he plays, is momentarily brought back to life in director Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." And his resuscitation echoes the film's theme of immortality, in all its temptations and dangers. As the film Ledger was making before he died, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" has taken on the morbid fetishism of Hollywood legend and lore, akin to what "Giant" was to James Dean, or "The Misfits" to Marilyn Monroe.

The biggest shock about "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is how organic Ledger's performance is in the film, and how seamlessly Gilliam weaves both the actor's presence and his absence into a densely layered visual and conceptual tapestry.

Since his days as an animator for "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and such subsequent solo films as "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys," he's been known as a director of unfettered, impish visual imagination. That extravagance pours forth from nearly every shot of "Imaginarium," whose costumes and production design fairly burst with inspiration, cadging scraps and tatters from Victorian toy theaters, commedia dell'arte, contemporary consumer culture, Buddhism, tarot, bleak postindustrial realism and nearly every aesthetic impulse in between.

Gilliam's lavish visual sensibility has sometimes swamped the narrative of his movies, but in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" the two exist in perfect harness. Parnassus, who travels London with his beautiful daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and two helpers (Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer), is not only blessed -- and cursed -- with immortality, but he also possesses the power to control people's imaginations. When the ragtag troupe sets up their stage alongside the random pub or shopping center, the come-on isn't the usual sideshow spiel but an invitation to passersby to enter their own dreams, shepherded by the benevolent, tranced-out doctor.

When Ledger's character, Tony, finds himself behind the metaphysical looking glass, what Gilliam might have intended as a simple escapist fairy tale resonates in unexpected, deeper ways. These were the sequences that Ledger hadn't filmed before he died, a problem Gilliam ingeniously solved by enlisting other actors to play his otherworldly avatars.

When Johnny Depp appears on-screen as Ledger's first alter ego, the moment is breathtaking and profoundly moving, as his version of Tony helps a silly wealthy woman let go of the crass materialism that drives her. The reward, he suggests, is immortality on a scale of Princess Di and Rudolph Valentino, whose images float by on funereal barges; as he invites her into her own gondola, he tells her, "Nothing is permanent. Not even death."

Indeed. "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" turns out to be its own spectacular and even sacred memorial to Ledger, preserving the final performance of a gifted young actor in his prime. Seeing Ledger embody both the confidence of a suave leading man and the physical plasticity of a fine character player, the experience is not unlike the exhilaration and sadness of watching the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It," in which the singer and dancer was so startlingly on his game.

When Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell appear on-screen as various versions of Tony's imagined self, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" leaps into another realm, using computer-generated effects and the immersive aesthetic of video games to endow him with a second life within his eternal one. James Cameron might have changed the game forever with "Avatar," but Gilliam takes the same principles -- mixing live action and animation to create fully realized alternate realities -- and deploys them on a less ambitious but more transcendent scale.

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