3 stars (out of four)
"Tideland" is a disturbing confection, a Gothic fairy tale from "Brazil's" Terry Gilliam based on Mitch Cullin's 2000 novel about the fantasy life of a brainy, lively little Southern girl named Jeliza-Rose.
Jeliza, wondrously played by 10-year-old Jodelle Ferland, is a sweet little thing living in a nightmare world. Her parents are drug addicts, and her two locales are a seedy druggie hotel that gets set afire by her rocker dad, Noah (Jeff Bridges), and later a vast Texas prairie where their only neighbors are the rattle-brained Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) and his witch-sister Dell (Janet McTeer).
Gilliam describes the result of all this as "'Alice in Wonderland' meets `Psycho'"--though I'm surprised he didn't also toss in "Zazie dans le Metro," Louis Malle's 1960 French new wave movie about a foul-mouthed little girl in Paris.
I liked Gilliam's movie, but I'm sure I'm in the minority. It's the sort of film that not only violently offends or bewilders the average audience (who mostly won't see it anyway), but may even discomfit some of Gilliam's fans--a dark, madcap comic shocker that seems to hint at dangerous veins of pedophilia and necrophilia beneath its crazy, whirligig surface.
It bursts with talent, but so did Gilliam's last film, "The Brothers Grimm," which many critics hated and audiences ignored. (Both were wrong, I thought.) But, if "Grimm" looked like a huge project that Gilliam deliberately bent out of shape, "Tideland" is obviously something he really cares about. He blurbed Cullin's novel as "brilliant." And that's what the movie is: a shockingly brilliant off-color effort that flips a finger to proprieties. Gilliam himself appears before the movie begins, to warn the audience that some of them will hate it.
When the movie starts, Gilliam keeps juxtaposing Jeliza-Rose's sordid reality with her sweet, strange dreams. We see her mom, ex-groupie Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly, at her blowziest), dying of an overdose in a seedy hotel, after Jeliza helpfully cooks up the dope; later, pop Noah takes her to their untended Texas farmhouse and expires himself on another junkie "vacation." For the rest of the movie, Bridges, with the help of the makeup artists or maybe a dummy, reclines in an easy chair and putrefies, his ultimate "laid-back" performance. No one could have done it as well.
That leaves Jeliza-Rose with her two oddball neighbors, Dickens--who sounds like a demented version of Dennis Weaver's Chester on "Gunsmoke"--and his taxidermy-obsessed sister.
All these characters are so weird and wild that it's a relief when Jeliza-Rose retreats into her dream world, primarily with the four dolls' heads she has turned into finger-puppets (Sateen Lips, Glitter Gal, Mustique and Baby Blonde, all voiced by Ferland).
Ferland plays everything so gamely and naturally that she tends to take the sting out of every psychic danger-zone into which the movie wanders. Still, some audiences--even those who put up with Noah rotting away--will be disturbed when Jeliza-Rose flirts with Dickens and calls him her husband. Dickens' character is so presexual it plays less toxic than it sounds, but though Gilliam clearly isn't going for a perverse spin, it's still queasy-making.
In a way, "Tidelands" is an American "Zazie," but since it comes from a more Puritan-influenced culture, it seems more sinful. It's not as funny as "Zazie," and certainly not as funny as the old Python material or Gilliam's best movies. But it's crazy, dangerous and sometimes gorgeous: a feast of nuttiness that takes you, for a while, over the edge.
Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Tony Grisoni and Gilliam, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin; photographed by Nicola Pecorini; edited by Lesley Walker; production designed by Jasna Stefanovic; music by Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna; produced by Jeremy Thomas, Gabriella Martinelli. A THINKFilm release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: R (for bizarre and disturbing content, including drug use, sexuality and gruesome situations--all involving a child, and for some language.)
Jeliza-Rose - Jodelle Ferland
Dell - Janet McTeer
Dickens - Brendan Fletcher
Noah - Jeff Bridges
Patrick - Dylan Taylor
Woman/Squirrel's Voice - Wendy Anderson