Let Heath Ledger Rest in Peace

Sometimes a movie is so incredibly bad, you wonder how it ever got made. With Serious Moonlight, the answer is clear, and you'll feel guilty for even asking the question. This dark comedy is from a screenplay by Adrienne Shelly, the writer-director-star of Waitresswho was murdered in her New York office in 2006, just six months before her film was released. Shelly was a skillful storyteller with a knack for whimsical comedy. Or so we thought before Serious Moonlight, in which a bitchy lawyer (Meg Ryan) finds out her husband (Timothy Hutton) is leaving her for a younger woman (Kristen Bell), so naturally she reacts by hitting him over the head with a pot and duct--taping him to the toilet. Serious Moonlight is directed by Shelly's friend Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and is produced by Shelly's husband. No doubt they thought they were paying tribute to Shelly. Instead, they've done the opposite. This movie is so tone-deaf, it makes you question if Waitresswas just a fluke. (Article continued below…)

The life-after-death industry is booming these days. Last month Vladimir Nabokov's son put out The Original of Laura, despite the fact that his dad had decreed he never want-ed the unfinished work to be published. After Michael Crichton died, his publisher unearthed his "last" novel, Pirate Latitudes, and is looking to hire a co-writer to finish his "last last" novel, still in manuscript form. Later this month, Tennessee Williams's The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond finally hits the big screen. Never heard of it? That's because it's from an unproduced Williams screenplay that, frankly, feels like a bad imitation of Williams (the actors' over-the-top Southern accents don't help). The question in all these cases has been: is this fair? If a work wasn't ready before the artist died, why should an heir let it see the light of day?

In some cases, the answer is because it can only help. The Michael Jackson documentary This Is Ithas actually softened the King of Pop's late reputation because he was so lively and lovable onscreen. Truth be told, there's not that much at stake for Jackson, Nabokov, Williams, or even Crichton. Their reputations are secure; a posthumous piece—if it's labeled as unfinished—simply provides a final window into their work. Fitzgerald (The Love of the Last Tycoon), Vonnegut (Armageddon in Retrospect), and even Mark Twain (The Mysterious Stranger) have all been posthumously published. But those guys are all-stars. For someone like Shelly, whose legacy is still up for grabs, an unfinished work is much more fraught, especially when it's a total stinker.

That's not completely true of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, also known as The Film Heath Ledger Was Making When He Died. Still, watching it, you feel like a dinner guest who has to pretend to like his best friend's bland cooking. Ledger's performance was so incomplete that director Terry Gilliam got Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law to play parts of Ledger's character, a charlatan who joins a traveling circus. The way Depp swaps in for Ledger is clever, but even then it's a bittersweet moment. The Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountainand The Dark Knight was dangerous and brooding—close your eyes and both characters come to life. By comparison, the Ledger in Parnassus just seems flat. It's got to be enormously difficult to resist the urge to complete a dead performer's work: besides the financial considerations, art grants a certain immortality. But the best way to honor the dead may be to allow their last work to stay just as they left it—unfinished.