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'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus': Gilliam's creativity tested

With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam shows us the Harry Potter movie that he might have made.

The cinema's greatest fantasist devises towering cliffs and blinding blizzards, Satan conjuring up clouds he can walk on, a road of rose petals winding into a desert. Gilliam's imagination has no peer.

Of course, given a studio budget, he'd probably never finish his Potter. The "unluckiest" movie maker, Gilliam had the misfortune of being the director of the film that Heath Ledger didn't live to complete. It took every bit of that famed imagination to conjure a film that looks as if it meant to change leading men all along.

Mad, dark and difficult, Imaginarium is a Faust tale of an ancient sideshow wizard (Christopher Plummer) plying his trade from a creaking, horse-drawn, two-story wagon in modern London. We're invited to make Gilliam comparisons as drunken modern audiences disdain the old doctor's old-school magic. But duck through the plastic sheets of his plainly fake magic mirror, and you enter a world of wonder, beauty and awe-inspiring menace.

When his ensemble (Lily Cole, Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield) rescues a seemingly murdered man (Ledger) hanging from beneath a London bridge, the doctor's traveling show takes on a new urgency. The undead man might be part of an age-old bet between the devil (Tom Waits, perfectly cast) and the doctor, a bet whose debt is now due.

Much of Gilliam's non-Hollywood work has the tint of "instant cult film." If you endured Tidelands, you know what I mean. If he's lucky, a cult will fall for it. Parnassus benefits from warm work by the actors who fill in for Ledger in the alternative world behind that mirror: Johnny Depp bewitches, Jude Law bedevils and Colin Farrell intimidates, each impersonating Ledger's mannerisms, playing aspects of the screen persona that Ledger offered in his too-short career.

Parnassus doesn't really begin until these alternate Heaths take over, an hour into it. It's filmic fool's gold; every scene that doesn't sparkle is just dirt — dank, gritty visuals, murky plotting and very bad line-readings from Troyer (Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies).

But as the film makes clear in one allegorical scene in which photos of Princess Diana and James Dean float by, there's more than one brand of immortality. There's the deal with the devil that Doctor Parnassus made, and the one that celebrities who die too young make by accident. "Nothing's permanent. Not even death." The movie makes a fitting epitaph for a star who was still mostly potential when he died.

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