The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Heath Ledger

Parnassus Pictures

Review in a Hurry: Of course, you're waiting to know if Heath Ledger is any good in his final role—and don't worry, he is. But more importantly, director Terry Gilliam is back in fine fantasy form, after a series of critical and commercial failures, with this tale of an immortal showman (Christopher Plummer) who engages in a series of wagers with the devil (Tom Waits).

The Bigger Picture: Though it's usually a good thing when a director tries to learn new things, Gilliam's recent attempts at reinventing himself just weren't working. There was the aborted Don Quixote movie that he never finished, the Weinstein-tampered Brothers Grimm and the inventive-but-unlikable Tideland.

Now, however, he's gone back to what worked before—a dark fairy tale that simultaneously reflects upon the harshness of reality. It's a little bit Fisher King and a lot like Baron Munchausen, all of which is good news for the faithful.

Though set in the modern world, the story follows the eternally aged doctor and his acting troupe as they put on a show wherever their wagon stops. Central to the show is a magic mirror, which initially appears to be sort of a taboo thing that only obnoxious baddies and the uninformed take dubious advantage of, but ultimately it does seem that it's in fact the main highlight of the show. Enter the mirror, and you enter a world derived from your own personality, though this world is still mostly governed by the subconscious of Parnassus.

"Mostly" in that the devil is also in there somewhere, and at a certain point the participant may be given a choice of easy temptation or harder road to enlightenment. The former, of course, results in the soul going to Satan. The latter, mostly, in what appears to be a safe return for a usually happy participant who makes a cash donation out of sheer joy.

The chief stake between Parnassus and Ol' Scratch is the soul of the good Doc's teenage daughter, who is about to come of age. Yet this devil isn't in it for the cheap victory—he, like Parnassus, is addicted to the eternal game and keeps offering double-or-nothing game changers. In this case, the first one to win five souls via the mirror will be the winner.

Thrown into the mix, with unclear allegiances, is amnesiac Tony (Ledger), saved from an apparent suicide by Parnassus' troupe, and who may have already picked a side, or be playing both against each other. The storytelling device that allows him and others to change appearance inside the mirror may have been engineered simply to salvage things after the actor's death, but fill-ins Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law make it work, largely because they all pull off irreverent impersonations of their late friend.

There's a lot of set-up to take in, and for a while, it feels like the film will never get going. Dr. Parnassus' attempts to reveal his own backstory are constantly, frustratingly interrupted when all we want is to get them out of the way so the plot can really start. It wouldn't be surprising if Gilliam found this kind of tease hilarious. But the payoff is a fractured fairy tale from the cinematic master of the same, and whatever its flaws, getting Gilliam even remotely back in this game is a big plus.

The 180—a Second Opinion: Purists will likely decry Gilliam's newfound use of heavily CG environments, while the impatient may risk walking out before things really kick in with a vengeance.


Imaginarium isn't in there, but see what did make it into our Best of 2009: Movies gallery

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