The late Henry Fonda had the good fortune of ending his distinguished film career with an Oscar-winning performance in the popular On Golden Pond, while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, both Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin found their mutual swan song to be the Hall of Shame turkey Cannonball Run II. Most stars, however, bow out in a less conspicuous manner via a film that's neither exemplary nor execrable, and that's certainly the case with Heath Ledger.
Ledger's last completed film before his tragic death was, of course, The Dark Knight, for which he won a richly deserved Academy Award as The Joker. But the actor was already hard at work on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when he accidentally OD'ed on prescription pills. Rather than close shop on the entire production, Gilliam found a way to finish the film without his leading man. Gilliam's ingenuity in this matter is to be commended, even though one wishes the end result was a better tribute to a remarkable talent taken before his time.
Ledger, for the record, doesn't play the doctor of the title. That role falls to Christopher Plummer, whose Parnassus can be seen as Gilliam's own thinly disguised view of himself -- a visionary whose primary desire is to demonstrate his brilliance to a world that often isn't capable of handling it. The head of a traveling show that stirs vague thoughts of the one from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Gilliam's pictures are occasionally steeped in movie lore), Parnassus once made a deal with the devilish emissary Mr. Nick (a welcome Tom Waits), a bargain that granted him immortality but now means he'll be forced to hand over his teenage daughter Valentina (promising newcomer Lily Cole) on her next birthday. As Parnassus renegotiates the deadly deal with Nick (more shades of The Seventh Seal), he and the other members of his troupe -- Valentina, the sensible Percy (Verne Troyer, Austin Powers' diminutive Mini Me) and the annoying Anton (Andrew Garfield) -- are joined on the road by the rakish Tony (Ledger), an amnesiac on the run.
The centerpiece of Doctor Parnassus' show is a magic mirror that harbors a fantastic landscape on the other side. The visions that greet those passing through are sometimes delightful, sometimes dangerous, but always eye-popping -- think of a cross between Alice's Wonderland, Yellow Submarine's Pepperland and Gilliam's own creations as part of the Monty Python gang. And it's on the other side of the looking glass where Gilliam solves the problem created by Ledger's passing.
As long as the character of Tony remains in the real world, he's played by Ledger, but after he goes through the mirror, he's portrayed first by Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, and finally Colin Farrell. It's arguably the best possible solution to an impossible dilemma, but it's not as if the film's troubles ever began and ended with Ledger. Instead, Gilliam, whose last two pictures were the 10-Worst-list placeholder The Brothers Grimm (with Ledger) and the barely seen Tideland, has once again allowed the visuals to overwhelm all other aspects of the production. Co-writing the script with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown, he has crafted a messy tale that gets tangled up in its own garbled plot strands (some surprisingly trite) and shortchanges the actors by giving them ill-defined characters to play. To be fair, the screenplay might have been more finely tuned before Ledger's death forced some tinkering, but based on the excesses of several of Gilliam's past pictures, there's a sense that the original draft wasn't much more polished than what finally made it to the screen.
Ledger is effortlessly charming (and clocks more screen time than I had anticipated), but Tony is a thin role, all the more so when compared to the actor's meaty parts in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. Still, fans will want to catch this final screen appearance, even if it comes wrapped in regret. Because once we see him stepping through that mirror for the last time, we know he won't be coming back to us.