At the Theater #4: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I have to hand it to Terry Gilliam. Having one of your main actors die in the middle of filming is a big hurdle to overcome. But Gilliam came up with a very creative way to deal with it. Since half of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus takes place in an fantasy world of the mind’s imagination, Gilliam cast the trio of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play the part of the late Heath Ledger’s character Tony, who Ledger plays in the real world scenes. I wasn’t aware of this heading into the movie. I thought Ledger’s death would have been handled the same way as Brandon Lee’s for The Crow: a body double and plenty of shadows. When Tony steps into the Imaginarium, I thought to myself “Wow, Heath Ledger really looks like Johnny Depp here.” And then said, “Wait, is that Johnny Depp?” Watching Depp, Law and Farrell play Tony in the imaginarium was very cool, but finding out afterwards that the three of them gave their paychecks from this movie to Heath Ledger’s young daughter Mathilda was every cooler. Each of them showed some real class with that.

Not Heath Ledger.       Also not Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger’s final film shows off his charm. The amnesiac Tony quickly takes up with Dr. Parnassus and his roving sideshow and goes to work as their caller, bringing in new customers to help win Doctor Parnassus’s bet with the devil. Ledger’s physical and verbal deftness during his first scene as a member of Dr. Parnassus’s crew reminded me of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which I think helped confuse me when Johnny Depp appeared as Tony in the next scene. I’ve been a fan Ledger’s work for some time. He was a great actor who will definitely be missed. His portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight helped me name that my top movie of 2008.

“I wish I could quit you.”

My problems with The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus are what Terry Gilliam leaves out. A big deal is made about the arcane symbols on Tony’s forehead, with multiple characters (and the audience) wondering their meaning. But the audience is left wondering, as this is never explained.

“By the way, it says “balls” on your face.”

Also never explained is why the devil wants Tony dead, a problematic Deus Ex Machina at the end of the movie. Dr. Parnassus has lost his bet with the devil and forfeited his daughter’s soul, but the devil tells him that if he kills Tony, he can have his daughter back. The devil says he always wanted Tony dead, but Tony kept escaping him. Before this, the devil showed no animosity towards Tony and seemed initially to even be the reason that Tony appeared in front of Dr. Parnassus’s crew. So why does the devil suddenly want him dead? This made the ending seem a little weak for what was otherwise a very cool movie. I give The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus three stars out of five, meaning I liked it.

I caught The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, at the corner of Henry St and Orange St in Brooklyn Heights. I definitely recommend seeing movies here. It’s a very old school two screen theater, but it’s kept in impeccable shape. It is a shrine to movie-going. The lobby has reading copies of Zoetrope and other film magazines, as well as comfortable couches to read them on if you arrive a little early for your movie. The seats in the theater are nicely cushioned and in good shape. The staff is friendly. The concession stand has more than your usual popcorn, candy boxes and soda options. There are some high-end chocolate bars for sale, a wide choice of tea, and Italian sodas. It’s usually a staff of two on any given night, with the projectionist or ticket seller also doing double-duty at the concession stand.

Most importantly about the concession stand, the popcorn tastes fresh. After working in a now-defunct movie theater in high school, I learned something that I never suspected. When there is popcorn leftover at the end of the night, we were instructed to bag it up in long plastic bags. Those bags would be emptied in the glass bins in front of the concession stand the next night and sold to unsuspecting customers, unless those customers specifically asked for fresh popcorn. The process would continue night after night, with popcorn of varying degrees of staleness being passed off as just made. Since then, I’ve been leery of movie theater popcorn. There are plenty of theaters in the city that definitely serve stale popcorn and I’ll be calling them out as this blog continues week to week, but the popcorn at Brooklyn Heights Cinema is good. Do yourself a favor and catch a movie there followed by dinner at one of the nearby Henry St. restaurants.