The passing of Heath Ledger was a tragedy, and with it we mourn the loss of a great and gifted performer coming into his own and standing on the cusp of greatness. But if there is one tiny nugget of positive impact we can salvage from such tragic circumstance it is the effect his untimely death had on his dear friend and director Terry Gilliam. Midway through his dark hearted Faustian saga in which a thousand year-old carnival owner battles The Devil for souls in an unwise wager, Gilliam suddenly found himself without his leading actor.

With much of the real-world action wrapped already, Gilliam hit on a stroke of genius whereby he envisioned that each of the three times Ledger’s character, the enigmatic, amnesia-stricken George, would step through the mirror into the Imaginarium, a surrealist netherworld where temptation battles imagination for the right to consume you or set you free, he would be played by a different actor (first Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, and, finally Colin Farrell). At the time the idea seemed risky to say the least, but having now been realized the notion of a man with no conscious memory being different each time his subconscious is tapped into seems so natural and straightforward it is difficult to imagine how such scenes could have been more effective had Ledger played the parts himself. This unforeseen obstacle jolted Gilliam and sparked within him an explosion of ingenuity, channeled like a diamond bit to the purpose of salvaging his picture from disaster.

While at this point there is almost an unspoken sense of obligation to praise Ledger’s final performance as something extraordinary, the truth is he’s just okay, and the multiple incarnations of George beyond the mirror are a far better metaphor for his refracted psyche than anything his repertoire of clockwork tics and twitchy confusion can convey. Rescued from the end of a rope from either a botched suicide or a summary execution the possibly shady George unwittingly becomes the wildcard in a final round of betting between Tom Waits’ Mr. Nick and the broken and dispirited Dr. Parnasus (Christopher Plummer), who is about to lose his daughter, Valentina. Tasked with providing a beating heart to this grimly laced story of redemption Lily Cole is truly impressive. An audacious piece of casting to be sure, the former model is pitch perfect as the naïve and delicate flower teetering on womanhood, whose innocence and promise make her a prize more valuable than treasure.

Further evidence of this inspired casting can be found in Tom Waits, whose rasping tones lend his satanic figure a darkly comic sense of snark. A sardonic tormenter with a gambling habit and a fetish for the con game Wait’s Mr. Nick forgoes looming menace in favor of a scuttling old-fashioned trickster, sporting a giant phallic cigar to distract from what is a comically cheap suit. “I sure do hate to see you like this, Parny” he sneers, before proposing to the desperate Doctor one final round of winner-takes-all.

As the deeply regretful mystic Dr. Parnasus, the venerable Christopher Plummer is perhaps just a tad too passive in the final act, but builds up to it with some magnificent exchanges between himself and his longstanding/long-suffering assistant, the diminutive Percy played by Verne Troyer. Little more than a comic prop in the Austin Powers franchise, here Troyer is actually given a real character to play with and as the Jiminy Cricket to his Doctor he demonstrates some solid acting chops. The ever-more impressive Andrew Garfield rounds out the ensemble as the bewildered yet besotted herald into this bizarre freak show. But the true star of Dr. Parnasus is director Terry Gilliam, and not just for the gloriously psychedelic delirium that dazzles us each time we take a trip to the Imaginarium.

Gilliam is a director who seemingly thrives on adversity; One of a dying breed of filmmaker, who finds himself constantly at odds with in industry in which he works, and whose career is strewn with the flaming wreckage of a series of heated battles stemming from his refusal to compromise creatively. Among the more famous are his battles with his studio over the final cut and release of Brazil (he won, eventually), and battling God and the elements during the much-troubled production of Don Quixote (he lost, but swears he’ll try again). Finally it seems after the beautiful but muddled Tideland and the just plain bad The Brothers Grimm, the great and flamboyant showman has found his fire once again. Welcome back Terry Gilliam, we’ve missed you.

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

Director: Terry Gilliam

Runtime: 122 Minutes

Distributor: Sony Picture Classics

Rating: PG-13

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