By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; 12:00 AM
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," a meandering, visually imaginative movie from the always experimental Terry Gilliam, is a provocative piece of work all by itself. But when considered in context with its backstory -- a backstory that involves the film nearly stopping mid-production after star Heath Ledger's unexpected death -- it becomes multiple other things: a document of Ledger's final moments onscreen, a testament to creative cinematic solutions and a must-see for anyone fascinated by the twists and turns of an ever-evolving filmmaking process.
"Parnassus" -- out on DVD ($28.95) and Blu-ray ($34.95) today -- actually feels like a more complete experience when viewed at home, complete with extras that explore that aforementioned filmmaking process. True, the off-kilter punch of Gilliam's mad imagery, which takes us into dreamscapes often freakier than the ones conceived by Tim Burton, may get short shrift if you're watching on the small screen. But this "Imaginarium" certainly impresses far more when one understands all the decisions made behind the scenes.
"I love leaving unexplained things in films because it allows the audience a chance to invent their own story of what is going on," Gilliam says at one point during a director's commentary track included on both the DVD and Blu-ray releases. That approach -- a Gilliam specialty -- admittedly may leave some viewers more frustrated by "Parnassus" than entertained.
Translation: If you like linear narratives where all plot points are clear and the ending wraps up all previous developments in a semi-neat bow, you may not want to bother with this film. The plot focuses on a traveling band of rogue performers, led by Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and eventually joined by a charismatic, mystery man named Tony (Ledger), who invite their audience members to plunge through a looking glass of sorts, where they encounter unfinished subconscious business and ethical dilemmas that test their integrity. Oh, and Parnassus also has a deal with the devil (an appropriately gravelly-voiced Tom Waits) that involves his daughter possibly having to give up her soul at the age of 16. Like I said, it ain't linear. But it is marvelously colorful and outlandishly gorgeous to look at.
And it's filled with energetic performances, not only from Ledger -- who again proves, stunningly and sadly, just how in command of his gifts he had become just before he passed -- but also from Plummer, Verne Troyer (yeah, you heard me) and the trio of actors who play the alternate versions of Tony encountered in that beyond-the-mirror Imaginarium: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. The process of replacing Ledger is covered in the Blu-ray exclusive featurette "Heath Ledger and Friends," in which Gilliam explains the elements of the story that had to be recrafted, and both Depp (via telephone interview) and Law talk about stepping into their colleague's suddenly vacant shoes. Depp makes a point of noting that none of the new Tonys were paid: "Basically, what we said was, it's Heath's money and it should go to [his daughter] Matilda."
Tributes to Ledger ripple through many of the special features that appear on both DVD and Blu-ray. A two-minute wardrobe test captures Ledger playfully trying on costumes, alternately smoldering and smirking as he switches ensembles and crowns himself in feathered hats. A three-minute audio interview with Ledger, recorded for Art International Radio two months before his death and paired here with images of the late actor, also indicates the strong loyalty he felt toward Gilliam, with whom he had worked on "The Brothers Grimm": "I'd cut carrots and serve the catering on a Gilliam film," he says.
Several additional featurettes, covering everything from the creation of the monastery set to the international promotional tour for the movie, round out the bonus material, along with a single extended scene from the film and that aforementioned commentary track. For fans of Gilliam, or those who just wonder how the guy's mind works, almost all of it is worth a peek.
But if you literally have just five minutes after viewing the movie, then spend it listening to Gilliam's commentary during the scene in which Ledger first appears. By macabre coincidence, Tony is found dead, hung by a noose from a London bridge. Though he still finds the scene "disturbing and sad," Gilliam says he opted not to alter it because he did not want to modify the story he originally intended to tell. "Heath and I set out to make this movie. He was essential to it ... My attitude is, and I know his would have been, that we leave these things in."
It's one of many moments on the "Parnassus" release that show us how an accomplished director reacts to the one thing he can never control: stubborn, heart-breaking reality.