Heath Ledger's spirit haunts each frame of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a film he hadn't completed before dying two years ago. The project would have simply faded into tragic infamy except it's made by Terry Gilliam, a filmmaker for whom anything is possible, especially if it doesn't immediately make sense. Gilliam finished the movie with Ledger's friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepping into the late actor's role. If you're betting Gilliam couldn't pull it off, you're almost wrong.
Ledger plays Tony, a mysterious man first seen lynched from a bridge and, yes, the sight of Ledger playing nearly dead is mildly creepy. Tony is rescued by a troupe of sideshow entertainers led by Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), whose quaint, horse-drawn wagon/stage and Olde English manners are anachronisms in a modern world ignoring them.
The act is based around Parnassus and his magical mirror — actually a Mylar prop — that truly is a gateway to imagination. Parnassus uses it as a tool to win a long-standing bet placed with the devil, played whiskey-smooth by Tom Waits. On the other side of the "mirror" is whatever the visitors want or fear, and the choice determines the fate of their soul.
Tony feigns amnesia to dodge whoever tried hanging him and begins working for the sideshow with Parnassus' daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), the loyal nerd Anton (Andrew Garfield) and the dwarf sidekick Percy (Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer). Tony believes the show needs a facelift and classier dupes to exploit, introducing rich dowagers to their wildest dreams on the other side.
Ledger reportedly never filmed any of those fantasy sequences, so Gilliam hired Depp, Law and Farrell to play alternate versions of Tony, explaining through script rewrites that the women view them that way. It's a clever conceit under the circumstances, although identifying the changes and wondering what this movie would be if Ledger lived is a constant distraction.
Depp's stint is the shortest and most satisfying since Tony is just as puzzled by his changed appearance as viewers will be. He even mimics some of Ledger's tics, making the substitution a bit more believable. Law isn't as physically close to Ledger but enjoys one of Gilliam's showcase fantasies, when a ladder to the clouds splits at the rungs and Tony uses the halves as stilts to escape.
What he's running from is where The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus gets too quirky for its own good. Tony has a shady past involving charity fraud, Russian mobsters and black market sales of human organs, all part of a convoluted mess of twists left for Farrell to keep interesting. He can't, no matter what Gilliam dreams up to befuddle him.
It isn't fair to judge Gilliam's movie on what needed to be done after Ledger's death. Neither is it fair to call this just another Gilliam indulgence, as his recent films have been. Themes of mortality posed in the script and seconded by real life, and commitment to an art form — Parnassus' and the director's — are applied with cheeky flair and astonishing visuals.
Yet the movie's sensory thrills are overshadowed by Ledger's passing, knowing that each inventive spark he strikes on screen won't be seen again. And that isn't fair, either.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8364. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.