When Heath Ledger died in 2008 at the age of 28, his Oscar-winning role as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” was touted as his career finale.
But Ledger was working on another movie when he passed away, one that most people presumed would never be completed.
Filmmaker Terry Gilliam (“The Brothers Grimm”) had other ideas. He re-jiggered his screenplay (co-written with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown) to allow three other actors to step into the scenes Ledger had yet to shoot.
The end result is like many of Gilliam’s other films, visually wondrous but terribly convoluted.
Christopher Plummer (“Inside Man”) plays the titular character, a sideshow performer who travels in a ramshackle horse-drawn theatre wagon.
Parnassus is a carny mystic over 1,000 years old. It seems that he made a deal with the devil (gravel-voiced singer Tom Waits) for immortality…a deal he mightily regrets.
Satan takes great delight in toying with the old codger, offering him “bets” to undo the deal. Parnassus keeps taking Lucifer up on the wagers because the price of immortality is the life of his daughter once she reaches the age of 16.
Daughter Valentina (newcomer Lily Cole) is one of the traveling performers in her father’s troupe. The others in this ragtag crew are Anton (Andrew Garfield from “Lions for Lambs”), who is smitten with Valentina, and the diminutive Percy (Vern Troyer from “Austin Powers”).
Their “act” allows a person to travel through a mirror into a fantastical dimension of their own (and the doctor’s) imagination.
Things get complicated when they save the life of a stranger named Tony (Ledger) whom they find hanging by the neck under a London bridge.
One can help but wonder whether Gilliam may have had ideas about what kind of visuals he’d like to create and then came up with a story to fit them. Regardless, the scenes that he stages on the other side of the mirror are wildly imaginative.
Due to the fact that Ledger’s scenes behind the looking glass hadn’t yet been shot at the time of his death, Gilliam came up with a clever plot gimmick. Whenever Tony passes through the mirror, his appearance changes.
Johnny Depp, Colin Ferrell and Jude Law take turns playing Tony inside the Imaginarium.
While the movie’s themes may be puzzling and impenetrable, there’s no denying that Gilliam has a distinct and entertaining visual style and he gets terrific performances from his cast, especially Ledger.
The movie is a fitting epilogue to a short, bright career. (PG-13) Rating: **1/2
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it