I've made no secret of my love for director Terry Gilliam. Even when his movies are terrible (Tideland being his worst), he still manages to convey his crazed sense of invention. Unfortunately, in his more recent films, that sense of invention has come with an annoying lack of focus.
Most movie buffs and Gilliam fans know that his productions are often plagued with difficulties—the studio taking Brazil hostage, the over-budget drama of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the complete meltdown on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, etc. Most distressing was the death of star Heath Ledger during production of Gilliam's latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Ledger had already filmed a bunch of scenes when he passed away in January 2008. Rather than scrap the film, Gilliam and friends came up with an idea to keep the project moving forward: The title character (played by Christopher Plummer) has a traveling road show that features a mirror. On the other side of that mirror is a "land of imagination" that feeds off the desires of the person who has gone through it. After the death of Ledger, the land of imagination also became a place where your appearance can change.
Gilliam sets up this trick with his intro, where we see a lecherous man's face change after a mirror journey. Later in the film, when Ledger goes through the mirror in three sequences, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell then play his part, in that order.
It's a nifty trick, and it seems right at home in a Gilliam movie. Each of the actors (especially Farrell) brings a fun spark, and Gilliam succeeds in letting the audience sense the presence of Ledger throughout the movie, even when somebody else is playing his part. And Ledger, in his modern-day London-based scenes, is his normally reliable self. It's a good thing that his final work is able to grace movie screens.
Alas, the movie itself doesn't work as a whole. The main story involves Parnassus and his deal with the devil (Tom Waits) in which he wagered the soul of his first-born, Valentina (Lily Cole). The business between Parnassus and Valentina is garbled and failed to keep my interest. I found myself waiting for the trips through the mirror so the movie could pick up the pace
As for the usually reliable Gilliam visuals, there are a few truly majestic ones. I liked the Parnassus balloon, featuring his nose and eyes. The Parnassus cop statue that pops up in the desert is also good and has a cool Monty Python vibe.
But most of the fantastical imagery is done in by glossy CGI. Gilliam had gotten by on miniatures and hand-drawn animation before, but CGI started to make its way into his productions with The Brothers Grimm. This time, it's almost all CGI, and the effects team fails to capture the magic of Gilliam's past creations. It feels like a poorly produced, half-hearted Gilliam impersonation.
In the end, one has to give Gilliam the benefit of the doubt. He did manage to put together a film that isn't half bad, despite circumstances in which most directors would've thrown in the towel.
The movie is worth seeing to experience Ledger's swan song, but it is distressing to see such a great director continue to lose his touch. There's been some talk of his reviving The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Johnny Depp and Robert Duvall. That certainly sounds promising, and I still believe Gilliam has some great work left in him. He just needs to calm down a bit.