The story is (and you’re sure to hear it often) that Heath Ledger died midway through filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Since the film has a lot to do with what can best be described as alternate realities, Terry Gilliam’s fix was to cast three actors to fill in accordingly. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Collin Ferrell each make an appearance that lasts no more than 10 or so minutes, each in a different imagined world as a unique incarnation of Ledger’s character.
This is a fascinating idea, and perhaps one of the primary things that attracted me to the film. What better tribute to Heath Ledger the man than to fill his shoes with three other overwhelmingly talented actors? And they were a delight to watch. If you like or love any or all of them, I would say it’s worth it to dive into this film. Your hunger for a full performance by one of these stars may not be satisfied, but their cameos are a healthy meal nonetheless.
I’ve heard Gilliam’s primary objective in making this movie was to translate some of the crazy images from his head onto the screen — and this he did. Many of the scenes are visual feasts, with ideas and constructs that you’ve probably never seen or thought of before. It’s cerebral eye-candy of the highest order — strange, mystifying, and often intentionally funny.
But this isn’t enough. When I complained about Avatar, it wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate the technological and visual feat that James Cameron achieved — it was because the story wasn’t good. I don’t care what anyone says, the story of that film was, at best, mediocre. Those who disagree do so because they are justifiably wowed by the film’s many other impressive qualities, and because Cameron himself is such a towering, renowned genius. Gilliam will receive no such favor, in part because he is a much smaller name, and in larger part because his film is nowhere near as great an accomplishment (by most standards, anyway.)
Thus, Avatar has a 94 percent from Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics, and Imaginarium has only a 56 percent. The irony is that Gilliam’s film, story-wise, is actually more interesting and “original.” A vaguely powerful, immortal (but old) man (Christopher Plummer) has a daughter that will be taken by the devil when she turns 16 in two or three days. And then they meet a man hanging from a bridge and save him. And then a bunch of people go into this mirror and enter their own imaginations. There are some obligatory twists, but the pacing is forced and the plot points are basically arbitrary. Despite its inherent originality, I’ve rarely seen a film where the story seems to have been thrown together more carelessly.
Story story story. Above every other element of filmmaking, this is the one that means the most, lasts the longest, and affects the greatest change in audiences. Terry Gilliam doesn’t agree. I have a friend who’s a huge fan of his, and he told me that Gilliam admitted in several interviews the story was sort of tacked on to try and tie a bunch of visual ideas together. Fine. Tell the world about your weird dreams, Terry. Some of them will listen, heads cocked in quaint interest — and when you’re done, they’ll walk away and forget all about you.
I’m not condemning this film. In fact, I say go see it, because it’s cool. But you won’t remember it, because in the end, there’s nothing worth remembering. There are hundreds of films just like it — all spectacle, little to no story.
Every once in a great while, a film comes along that is beautiful, imaginative, surprising, and deeply meaningful all at once. Those are the films to celebrate. I won’t celebrate films like Gilliam’s Imaginarium though, because without the lasting quality of a powerful narrative, it achieves little more than the most shallow definition of entertainment: amused, fleeting distraction.
Jordan Petersen is a film correspondent for Rhombus.
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