The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Time Out New York Project: Issue #742/743, December 17-30 2009


Dir. Terry Gilliam. 2009. PG-13. 122mins. Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits.

Heath Ledger’s final onscreen performance, in Terry Gilliam’s notoriously troubled production, is clearly truncated, despite the semisolution hit upon by the cowriter-director after the actor’s death. Whenever he ventures into the film’s amorphous fantasy world, Ledger’s charismatic con artist, Tony, is played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law or Colin Farrell. The mechanics of the transformations are sound, but these three last-minute replacements aren’t able to make the character’s journey resonate emotionally — they never fully shake the sense of being stand-ins.

Fortunately, Tony is more of a supporting player in Gilliam’s fantasia. The real drama in Parnassus comes from the troupe of sideshow performers, led by a terrifically morbid Christopher Plummer, who bang about modern-day London in a rickety horse-drawn transport that unfolds into an oversize proscenium. It’s a film teeming with visual invention (often to the point of exhaustion), yet the big-budget pageantry is always counterbalanced by Gilliam’s deeply felt and thematically potent sympathy for the downtrodden artistes of the world. And Plummer and Tom Waits (as a bowler-hat-clad Old Scratch) help keep everything on track with their immortals-doing-battle routine, which comes to a deeply affecting head after one of them is reduced to a Lear-like vagrant.—Keith Uhlich