The passing of time has not lessened the shock of seeing Heath Ledger hanging from a noose — the late actor’s very first scene as a slippery businessman named Tony in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But it’s just as well that death’s reality is acknowledged up front; after that, the surreality of Terry Gilliam’s existential fantasia soon absorbs Ledger — as well as the bonus trio of stars pitching in, of sad necessity, as versions of Tony. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all don Tony’s ice-cream-white suit during Gilliam’s rambling meditation on destiny, free will, the magic of the sideshow life, and the lure of the devil. And they dust the director’s characteristically squirrelly, dense, and visually overloaded project with the sparkle of celebrity.
Tom Waits adds his own pixie dust as the devil, come to collect on a deal made long ago with Dr. P himself (Christopher Plummer, an excellent conjurer). But as is so often the case since his Monty Python days, Gilliam is best at visual games and weakest at storytelling. In Imaginarium, individual scenes are dazzling (a disappearance through a mirror, a walk on stilts that reach to the sky). But the assembled moments amount to a portfolio of collages — in this case, with a memorial theme. B-