Three Imaginary Girls

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Heath Ledger & Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
{The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus opened in Seattle on Friday, 1/8 at the Meridian 16 and the Metro}

The story breaks down to basic good vs. evil: Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a one-time meditating monk, makes a deal with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) in order to gain true love and immortality—the payment being his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), on her 16th birthday. In the interest of more fun, Mr. Nick adds a new wrinkle: whoever can win 5 souls first, wins Valentina’s soul too.

As Parnassus and his crew travel through cities by horse-drawn cottage/collapsible stage, Director Terry Gilliam throws in a few more wrinkles: The Doctor’s assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield), is madly in love with Valentina, and they end up finding Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging from the underside of a bridge, half-dead, apparently with amnesia. While the game to get souls takes place inside the Doctor’s head, Valentina falls for Tony, Anton tries to keep his jealousy in check, and Tony starts remembering his true nature.

Sounds complex, right? Or like it should be at least, but this film is missing what makes most of Gilliam’s other films so great: layers of storytelling complexity. The plot I outlined for you above? That’s pretty much all there is to it. The end is easily figured out, and the only surprise for me was how using Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell to finish out Ledger’s part turned out. It was such a seamless transition, it’s almost like it was intended to be that way all along (not to mention this was the first time I actually liked Colin Farrell in anything).

Of course this movie is also packed full of Gilliam trademarks: the contrast between the stark, bleak cities and the amazingly colorful, crazy acid-trip fantasy sequences was a visual treat. It definitely LOOKS fantastic. The problem is in the substance.

What I overheard from several people while leaving the screening is that The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus reminded everyone a lot of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—which isn’t too far off. However, I’d also say that Parnassus isn’t nearly as entertaining as Munchausen. But honestly I’m not sure how much that matters, given that I think most people are going to see this because it is Heath Ledger’s last film.

I understand that. In fact, if that’s why you want to see it, then I encourage you to do so. Ledger’s total screen time is brief, but he does what he always does, pulls you into the character right off and makes you start thinking about him. I just wish he had the opportunity to do it for us again.