Thursday, May. 14, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Heath Ledger's Last Laugh

He is first seen, in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, as a shadow swinging across the River Thames — "doing a river dance," says one of the men who spots him. In fact, he's dangling from a rope, his hands and feet bound by miscreants unknown. They left him "hanging by the neck till dead," the other man says, adding sourly, "if he had any sense." The hanged man is saved, to make a final film. It's Heath Ledger.

When the 28-year-old Australian actor died in early 2008 of an accidental prescription-drug overdose, audiences around the world mourned his loss. He had achieved so much in The Patriot and Brokeback Mountain; he would reveal a wild, chilling side in The Dark Knight (which posthumously won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor); and he promised so much more over the long career people expected of him. But a smaller group of cinephiles grieved for an additional reason: at the time of his death, Ledger was in the middle of shooting Terry Gilliam's Parnassus. Oh no, his cultists cried, another Gilliam film bites the dust. (See pictures of Ledger.)

That's because, complementing the director's list of official movie credits — which stretches from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Time Bandits through the magnificent Brazil and up to the giga-weird child nightmare Tideland four years ago — is a furtive, but nearly as famous, shadow filmography of unrealized projects. A purported Time Bandits sequel, an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities and two stabs at filming Alan Moore's Watchmen all went awry. J.K. Rowling, a Gilliam fan, reportedly wanted him to direct the first Harry Potter movie; Warner Bros., not so much. Chris Columbus got the gig.

Gilliam's legendary doomed project was the 1999 The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp and French doyen Jean Rochefort. When the 69-year-old Rochefort suffered a herniated disc, the insurance company pulled the plug on the production. (Ten years later, Rochefort is here at Cannes, looking as suave as ever.) All that remained of the film was a feature-length documentary, Lost in La Mancha, which shows the director as a persistently urgent, imaginative soul, sunny and funny even as Stonehenge-size dominos fall on him.

The problem with financing Gilliam's own grand imaginarium is that his movies are giant dreams requiring pricey sets and effects. What's kept him in business for the best part of 35 years is that big-time movie stars savor being part of those dreams. Depp rejoined Gilliam for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Brad Pitt headlined in 12 Monkeys, and Robin Williams swept through Grand Central Station during The Fisher King. Ledger and Matt Damon played the title characters in Gilliam's last large fantasy, The Brothers Grimm, in 2005. Last year, stars came to his rescue yet again. As a tribute to Ledger, Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell volunteered to film the uncompleted parts of the late actor's role. They also hoped to save Gilliam's bacon, or rather his producers' lettuce. The finished product was on display on May 22, out of competition, at the Cannes Film Festival. (See pictures of the red carpet at Cannes.)

Ledger is fine, parading loads of his grinning charisma, though the part offers him no last-testament revelation. He plays Tony, an entrepreneur of a kids' charity foundation (Suffer the Children) that gangsters had financed, then stolen the donations from. Given a second chance at life, he tries to revive a tatty but magical traveling act, the Imaginarium, run by an immortal lush named Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and assisted by his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), her would-be beau Anton (Andrew Garfield) and a mighty dwarf (Verne Troyer, who was Mini-Me in the Austin Powers series). Tony proves to be a natural salesman, a roguish charmer, and soon the Imaginarium has plenty of customers. The special ones step onstage through the Mylar mirror and enter a fantasy world tailored to their desires — until it leads to their doom. Parnassus, you see, has made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), and if he doesn't trap five souls by Monday and send them to hell, the Devil gets his daughter. (See the top 10 performances of 2008.)

At his death Ledger had finished most of the scenes establishing his character. The faux-Ledger actors have the majority of their scenes inside the Imaginarium. Depp escorts one enthusiastic lady through a lovely underwater empyrean that leads to the "One Nite Motel" (hell). Law, who scrambles inside to escape the Russian gangsters who hanged him, does a dexterous stilt walk on a million-foot-high broken ladder. Both appearances are brief. Farrell carries the bulk of Act Three, as Tony gets his comeuppance. Given that they're tripping through a fantasy-scape, the guest shots work pretty well. But casting multiple actors in the same role can't be considered an innovation. Todd Haynes split the main character in his 2007 Bob Dylan bio-collage I'm Not There into six parts — one of which was taken by Heath Ledger. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies.)

I've postponed this paragraph as long as possible; and I'd just as soon not write it, because I've been a Gilliam admirer for ages, since the Python days, and in theory I still am. But his new movie, which Gilliam dreamed up with his longtime writing partner, Charles McKeown, is mostly dismal. For an immortal monk, Dr. P has little magic and no grandeur; his MO is to get drunk and orate at his underlings. The pudding-faced Cole can summon no sorcery or teen sexuality, the role's two minimal requirements; and the only note Garfield can strike is jealous pique, an unattractive quality even in flashes, let alone for most of a two-hour movie. Troyer, the smallest actor, makes the biggest and best impression. He's a figure of saturnine power and towering comic skill.

Since his first films, in the medieval muck of Holy Grail and Jabberwocky, Gilliam has reveled in squalor; he loves nothing more than to rub his characters' (and the audience's) noses into the mess that antiquity forced most of humanity to inhabit, or into a fantasy world with a strong stench of the dystopian. This cynical vision can be cleansing, if cut with wit. But there's not much of that here. Certainly the Imaginarium scenes possess a visual splendor familiar to earlier Gilliam films. But similar effects were more fully achieved in his 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; further, they furnished an emotional core far richer than the one in Parnassus. One is left with the suspicion that Gilliam is less a director than a supremely gifted art director, and less a moviemaker than a confabulator of sensational stage sets and wondrous effects.

Parnassus touches the heart of a bereft moviegoer only at the end. The closing credit reads, graciously and feelingly, "A Film from Heath Ledger & Friends."

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