In my opinion, Terry Gilliam has made five perfect films: Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Brazil. In each of these, he marries his rococo visual style with an omnipresent -- in fact, at times overwhelming -- emotional immediacy. His characters, grotesque as they can sometimes be, are entirely transparent to us in these pictures: Fear and Loathing manages to paint an incredibly complex portrait of two men, despite the fact that they are never for a moment sober, and by yanking us painfully out of their protagonists' imaginary worlds, the endings of Tideland and Brazil reveal how close we've been to these characters all along. Gilliam can take me from weeping to laughing faster than any other filmmaker (the moment in Fear and Loathing when Hunter awakes from his early 60's reverie to find a Z on his forehead and a gun in his hand springs to mind); he sees the complexity in even minor players (like Fisher King's unforgettably tragic gay hobo, or the veteran in that movie played by Tom Waits), and he knows how to get insanely good work from actors: tiny child Jodelle Ferland detonates in every scene of Tideland, 12 Monkeys boasts brilliant performances from Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, both generally reliable but unextraordinary, and the flicker of mania, desire, and pain across Robin Williams's face in Fisher King make it, for me, his only truly accessible film performance. I may come to Terry Gilliam for the scenery, but I stay for the people chewing it.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus isn't like these movies. It didn't do a Mexican hat dance on my heart or leave me wanting to adopt a junkie's child. Though the performances were strong -- particularly by Christopher Plummer and luminous newcomer Lily Cole -- I didn't feel I was inside these characters, despite the fact that I spent a decent amount of time literally inside their imaginations. For the most part, they're depicted as fairy-tale types: the Devil, the child-bride, the trickster, the oldest man in the world. We hold them at a distance, and their actions often read as pieces of a half-remembered story, performed for our pleasure, rather than human choices enacted in the moment. But, unlike Gilliam's lesser-but-fun Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I didn't feel that this distance came from a desire to keep the material light and storybookish, the action quick and springy. This is a dark, ambitious, panoramic film, sprawling and loose-ended, a collage of landscapes and narratives and layered symbols. As a character in the film advises us, "Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately." And don't worry: you won't.
For that reason, I'm not going to write a real review of Imaginarium until I've seen it at least one more time. But I would advise you to get out to it as fast as you can, because I have a feeling it won't be in theaters for too long.