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Movie Review

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Morality tale works its magic in ‘Imaginarium’

'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' Christopher Plummer presides over a carnival wagon with an alternate dimension. (Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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In “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,’’ a carnival wagon rumbles through the night-time streets of modern-day London, inviting the curious and the wayward to step inside. The proprietor is the good doctor of the title, a careworn sage a thousand years old and played under all the pancake and whiskers by Christopher Plummer. He has a moon-faced daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), nominally 16 and bursting into flower, a young assistant named Anton (Andrew Garfield) who loves the daughter, and a testy jack-of-all-trades dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer). Inside the wagon is an alternate dimension of surreal digital landscapes and, for each customer, a nasty moral choice.

In short, “Imaginarium’’ is a Terry Gilliam movie and it’s a mess, which over the years have come to mean much the same thing. It’s one of his better messes, though, or at least this critic was won over by its ramshackle whimsies. Your mileage may vary, especially if you feel that the gifted celebrity dead should be mourned with taste and decorum. In which case, why are you even at a Terry Gilliam movie?

When we first see the late Heath Ledger in “Imaginarium,’’ he’s hanging by a noose from a bridge over the Thames. (Cue intake of audience breath.) His character, Tony, is apparently dead but not really; he’s apparently a well-known philanthropist but not really. He may be a charlatan. He definitely has amnesia. And he’s played with wit and fickle inventiveness by an actor who surely wasn’t planning to leave us so soon. I’d like to imagine that Ledger would have a good chuckle over the hall-of-mirrors ironies this movie conjures up; whatever else you can say about him, the actor seemed to have had a perverse sense of humor and a total lack of fear.

Tony falls in with Doctor Parnassus’s ragtag troupe just as things are beginning to heat up for the first time in centuries. The Doctor has revived his longstanding rivalry with Mr. Nick, a.k.a. the Devil himself, a natty fellow played with extra relish by singer Tom Waits. (Waits, by the way, may be the only actor in the history of film to have played both Satan and, in 2006’s “Wristcutters: A Love Story,’’ God. Top that, Morgan Freeman.) Whoever can win over five human souls to his side of the fence gets the soul of the Doctor’s prized possession: Valentina.

Tony turns out to be surprisingly adept at luring people into the Imaginarium, where Gilliam’s own imagination runs riot. The wagon’s inner universe betrays the film’s small budget; the director’s visual ideas pile at us pell-mell but for the first time in a long time they have the strapped, patchwork feel of his Monty Python animations.

Because Ledger died before filming any of his Imaginarium sequences, Gilliam was forced into a novel rewrite: Each of the three times Tony steps into Parnassus’s wonderland, he changes appearance. An early sequence involving a minor character establishes that such things do happen, and the three actors who ultimately play the Imaginarium Tonys - Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell - bring a respectful enthusiasm to the game. They could have been this film’s pallbearers; instead, they turn their sections of “Imaginarium’’ into a fine Irish wake.

The film will outlive Ledger’s death, obviously, and on its own terms it’s of a piece with Gilliam’s recent work: overstuffed, understructured, dingy to look at, but vibrant with ideas half- and fully baked, which is already more ideas than most films consider. (Among other things, “Imaginarium’’ rescues Troyer, the onetime “Austin Powers’’ prop, as an actor to be taken seriously. The pessimist of the troupe, Percy turns out to be its stalwart heart as well.)

Mostly, though, “Imaginarium’’ is about the possibility of magic in the modern world, a topic near to Gilliam’s own big, fitful heart. In a way the director never intended, his movie now stands as evidence of the magic we’re lucky to capture on film and the magic we have to make for ourselves. See it for both kinds.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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Tom Waits

Satan on screen

Tom Waits's juicy role -- "Mr. Nick" -- in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" got us thinking about some of our favorite Beelzebubs.
Terry Gilliam and Verne Troyer

'Imaginarium,' full circle

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," written and directed by Terry Gilliam (left), preserves Heath Ledger's last performance.

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS Written and directed by: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Verne Troyer

At: Harvard Square, Waltham Embassy

Running time: 122 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (violent images, some sensuality, language, and smoking)

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