When Heath Ledger died back in January 2008, talk inevitably shifted to The Dark Knight, Ledger’s “final” performance. There was already an insane amount of hype surrounding the film and Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, but suddenly the phrase “posthumous Oscar” was being thrown around. Ledger’s Joker was magnificent, and the Oscar deserved if only as recognition of all the work he did prior to his death, and had The Dark Knight truly been Heath Ledger’s final onscreen performance it would have been a worthy end to his short career. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Ledger was halfway through filming on Parnassus when he died, and so this is now his final performance as an actor. A baffling, psychedelic Frankenstein of a film that frustrates both with its overreaching and lack of polish.
Parnassus follows a troupe of haggard performers led by the titular Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal with the power to take the imagination of an individual and bring it to life. When they step through his magical mirror, they enter a world built entirely within the mind where anything is possible. Along with Parnassus are his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), the altruist Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Parnassus’ friend and partner Percy (Verne Troyer). We learn that Dr. Parnassus has a long-standing relationship with the Devil (Tom Waits) and thanks to a bargain they made years ago, Parnassus will lose his daughter to the devil on her sixteenth birthday. That is, unless he can beat the devil in a contest to get five souls. Oh, and Tony (Heath Ledger) shows up to…well, I’m not sure what he’s doing there actually. Something about some Russian mobsters who want their money back and Tony utilizing the Imaginarium troupe to shield himself. And if this all seem terribly convoluted and disjointed it’s because it very much is.
Everything about this film reminds you that it was thrown together after one of the pivotal actors died. From the moment Heath Ledger arrives onscreen to the moment the credits roll, it feels as though you’re looking at a puzzle that’s missing half the pieces. It’s nobody’s fault really. Terry Gilliam lost the actor who the story seems to revolve around, and he did the best he could. By using Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell within the confines of the Imaginarium he’s able to close the gaps to a small extent, but it’s impossible not to wonder what came from the original script and what was changed after Ledger’s death. It’s almost as though there’s too much going on, and not enough. You can see that if this film had been completed as it was intended, it might have been epic, a massive tale that takes you from the real world to the world of the mind, and back again. But they didn’t have enough to do everything they wanted and so you just get bits and pieces of that epic. The run time is two hours, but so little is accomplished it almost feels shorter than it is.
Taking the sluggishness of the film further are the performances. For the most part they’re neither good nor bad, just floating along without any emotional resonance. Lily Cole is fine, Christopher Plummer is confusing, Tom Waits is admittedly pretty hilarious and Heath Ledger never has enough time to really get anything going. The two standouts are Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer and for very different reasons: Garfield simply feels realer than everyone else onscreen, taking an opportunity amidst the mess to give the audience someone to cling to. Meanwhile, Verne Troyer exemplifies the notion of casting for need and not want. He’s terrible. Nobody will be surprised by this, because he’s Verne Troyer and his big break was as Mini-Me, but the fact is he has a fairly sizable part and it becomes impossible to avoid how awful he really is. It’s these kind of mistakes that make it harder to feel sympathy for Gilliam and this film.
Ultimately though you do sympathize with Gilliam. This whole thing just got away from him in a way that nobody could have predicted. He lost a massive aspect of the plot and certainly his best actor, and there’s not much left to do at that point. I suppose he could have walked away and it’s admirable that he didn’t, but in the end, you don’t get anything just for finishing.