I went to see The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus last night, the film that is famous for being the final project that the late Heath Ledger worked on before he died. Doctor Parnassus has been in post production limbo for over a year now since the film makers were left in the lurch by the untimely death of their leading man, but luckily, good old Hollywood were there to pick up the finances and throw a whole menagerie of stars into the mix to fill in the missing pieces.
As you can imagine, Doctor Parnassus is a film that, after spending such a long time on the cutting room floor, still feels a little bit chopped up and hacked together. The film seems to give up on it's own plot at some points in favour of it's visuals, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but leaves many story elements up in the air or unexplained. It smacks of something that doesn't know whether to take it's plot line seriously, or whether to throw it all to the wind in favour of marvellous imagery. Anyway, I'll take a short stab at the story, without spoilers if I can help it.
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an aging monk who travels around with his stage show telling a religious story that you never hear or understand yourself throughout the film. One day the devil appears to him and grants him immortality at the cost of his first born child becoming part of the devil's property at the age of 16. Dr Parnassus has a daughter (Lily Cole), and the film surrounds Parnassus and the devil's struggle in an endless series of bets over his daughter, including the harvesting of souls in a mystery land inside Parnassus' mirror. They happen across a mysterious stranger (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrel) who cannot remember his past, but who brings radical ideas to Parnassus' show to lure in new, unsuspecting folks. As you can tell, the plot is rather confusing up until two thirds of the way through the movie, leaving many people with confused facial expressions that resemble a Pug being forced to eat bonfire toffee.
You've no doubt gathered that the main reason to watch this film is for the trippy special effects (unless you're a grief tourist and are still upset by Ledger's death. But hey, you can take comfort in the fact that he died doing what he loved; having a stranglewank in a cupboard). The stark contrast between the grim, urban environments of the real world and the whimsical, vibrant worlds inside the Doctor's mirror is like watching a Beatles cartoon whilst a hairy German does a dirty protest directly onto your eyes; it's a marvellous experience. It's the kind of vivid visuals that only modern technology can keep up with Gilliam's ambitions.
When it comes to the cast, the part of Tony is finished off by the likes of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, who are all made to look quite similar to Heath Ledger and told to act a lot like him. None of them are on screen for more than 10 minutes, yet are used as the star attractions, so commenting on their performances would be like discussing a tribute band's musical integrity. Startlingly enough, the female lead is played by Lily Cole, a woman who usually resembles an extraterrestrial when doing model shoots. The strangest thing about her appointment is that she's actually not bad as an actress, and doesn't look like an extra from Close Encounters when on moving film.
So, is this film any good or not? Yes, as a moving wonder of imaginative effects, no as a story telling device. Overall, I guess that would make it merely OK. Doctor Parnassus probably wouldn't have been finished at all if the film industry didn't see it as a final tribute to one of it's own actors, and as a send off, it's not all that spectacular.