I got to the screening of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus early and had time to grab a drink at a nearby bar. Three, actually. Scotches. I think that was the best possible way to watch Terry Gilliam's trippy movie. Regardless of alcohol, I have no idea what it was about, but it was fascinating and wonderful.
A traveling street show performs for the locals on a set that evokes Gilliam's animation style. It's already a weird contraption, this full-scale sort of pop-up book of a stage, only it's even weirder to see it out on the city streets. This stage sucks viewers into the mirror, where they go into a CGI world of imagination. Whether CG or real, it's all magical and all Gilliam.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his troupe rescue Tony (Heath Ledger), who is hanging from a bridge, and add him to their act. It seems Dr. P owes a mysterious Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) five souls, which he collects through his Imaginarium show. Now Tony's taking patrons through the mirror, and on the other side he appears as different actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell).
The idea of different actors taking over Ledger's role is the least weird part of all this. If there's a fantasy world, then of course he can appear as a different person in there. It is a seamless transition once Tony steps into the Imaginarium. None of this makes sense anyway, so just go with it. Really, who wouldn't want to see Depp, Law and Farrell play Heath Ledger? Frankly, I'm impressed that they completed all of Ledger's "real world" scenes, so at least he's always Heath there. I didn't know how much he'd completed before his passing.
Don't try to understand it. Just look at it. The visuals are so busy you'll have to pay attention to absorb everything. I have no idea who Dr. Parnassus is or what he wants. I'm sure it's in there, but only in that buried-metaphor kind of way. What is this relationship with the strange guy they saved from hanging? Who cares? The images inside the Imaginarium are so bizarre it's just worth experiencing. You've got cops dancing on a large tongue, 2-D cutouts spinning and interacting and gritty landscapes cluttered with debris.
Ledger is captivating when he appears. He gives another full-bodied, physical performance. Tony is an unknown, so there's no baggage or expectations. His actions, his movements, that's all what Ledger decided he'd be. His successors do a fine job carrying it. You do get to see a whole performance, and that's worth a lot for the film, too.