It should have been the must-see movie of the Christmas season, directed and co-written by the critically acclaimed Terry Gilliam ("Brazil," "12 Monkeys") and featuring the marquee cast of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell and, in his final role, Heath Ledger.
Instead, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is a disaster, incomprehensible from its opening minutes to the final credits. Its ostensible story follows a London sideshow run by the mystical doctor (Christopher Plummer, almost compelling), who has made some kind of bet with the devil (Tom Waits, wasted) using his own daughter (model-actress Lily Cole) as collateral. In its travels the show picks up a mysterious stranger named Tony (Ledger, who died mid-production), whose face changes each time he enters a magic mirror (Depp, Law and Farrell all play the same character).
Even had Ledger lived it wouldn't have helped. Gilliam insists on spectacle over storytelling, creating elaborate sets filled with stilt-walkers and jellyfish but neglecting to tie them together. Worse, he filches from his "Monty Python" days, throwing in an uninspired musical number performed by constables in fishnets.
What has happened to the erratic but visionary creator of "Time Bandits" and "The Fisher King"? As the British would say, he's lost the plot - with this movie, certainly, but possibly overall.
Lincoln Square 13 and Sunshine Cinema, Manhattan. Opens Jan. 8 on Long Island