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Gilliam’s Ghastly Miscalculation

Director Terry Gilliam has never been a model of consistency, but his missteps are at least understandable. This is a man, after all, whose simplest visions are grandiose, whose imagination is seemingly boundless. He gleefully embraces projects that are aggressively unconventional and, some might argue, unworkable. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that his résumé contains more than its share of brilliant fantasies (12 Monkeys), noble failures (Brazil) and ambitious messes (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

Now comes his first unabashed disaster, the wildly ill-conceived Tideland. As one might expect, it’s a startlingly original production, informed by such grotesque sensibilities that it’s a small miracle the movie ever got financed. Yet somehow it did, affording Gilliam the opportunity to adapt the cult novel by Mitch Cullin, itself a mercilessly bleak tale inspired by sources as divergent as Alice in Wonderland and Psycho.

Not that Tideland, surreal and demented though it may be, could ever be confused with those movies. It is the story of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), the daughter of two heroin addicts whose voracious appetites lead to quick overdoses. Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly) is first to go, and Noah (Jeff Bridges) soon follows, though his decomposing corpse hangs around to serve as a morbidly comic prop. Left to her own devices, Jeliza-Rose makes new friends of the human variety (Dell and Dickens, her bizarre and slightly deformed neighbors) and the plastic variety (a collection of decapitated Barbie dolls, which she incorporates into her intricate fantasy world).

The good news: Nicola Pecorini’s cinematography is breathtaking, and the performances, particularly Ferland’s, are equally inspired. The bad news is everything else. Tideland sputters out of the gate and somehow manages to lose momentum until finally devolving into a desperately unfunny joke. It’s bad enough that Jeliza-Rose has to cook up the heroin for her strung-out parents; when the movie, during its laborious third act, begins to suggest an exploitation of her youthful sexuality, it’s just plain creepy. One can’t help but wonder if Gilliam is deliberately attempting to alienate his audience or to pummel them into submission with putrid trash.

And maybe he is. In a recent interview, Gilliam seemed unusually delighted by the criticism of a fellow Monty Python alum, Michael Palin: “He saw it, and I don't think he liked it. He walked straight out of the screening without saying anything. When I spoke to him later he said: ‘I can't get it out of my head. I'm still not sure whether it's the best or the worst thing you've ever done.’” Think the latter.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars