5 - 1
Why didn’t we include this in our masterpiece’s overview? Hard to say, really. It is a great movie. In some ways, better than a couple we consider seminal to Gilliam’s oeuvre. But there is also a goofball gimmicky quality that takes away, if ever so slightly, from its presence and power (Michael Palin’s “personal problem,” for example). On the other hand, this is the foundation of all of the filmmaker’s future flights of fancy. As a matter of fact, the final scene, where God is providing exposition for all that has happened appears to be taking place directly inside Gilliam’s psyche. It’s great, just not truly classic.
No one gave this movie much of a chance upon its initial release. Sure, The Fisher King had been a hit and even struck some awards season gold (Richard LaGravenese for his script, Mercedes Ruehl for supporting actress, among others). But Gilliam’s last foray into sci-fi (Brazil) was a troubled production that was bolstered by the Los Angeles critics, not a studio solidly supporting it. As luck would have it, star Bruce Willis was Hellfire hot at the time and his co-star, one Brad Pitt, was on the rise as well. They turned in work that offers a primer on what they, and their director, do best.
Gilliam was not the first filmmaker attached to this project. Alex Cox, of Sid and Nancy fame, was all set to helm the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s revered tome when tensions between himself and producer Laila Nabulsi lead to his termination. Gilliam stepped in, and with only 10 days to draft a new script, came up with this brilliant take on the material. Stars Johnny Depp and Benecio Del Toro are so good in their roles, so realistic as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo that you almost forget they are famous A-list celebrities. Instead, they inhabit Thompson and Gilliam’s world so completely this often feels like a documentary, not a work of fiction.
This is the movie that put his name on the auteur’s map, a stunning example of creative genius boiled down to its sci-fi dystopian basics. In essence, this is a movie about escape, and the often staggering inability to do so. Our hero, Sam Lowry, imagines himself a winged warrior against a depressing bureaucracy when he is really nothing more than a cog in a complex, incoherent future machine. Easily earning its place among the filmmaker’s very best, the rocky road to a legitimate theatrical release made Gilliam’s plight even more prophetic. He would never have an easy time with any of his movie with this one being indicative of his “David vs. Goliath” issues.
Why is this at number one? Why did we pick this over Brazil, or 12 Monkeys, or Fear and Loathing? Well, the answer is simple and also not quite so. As an epic reminder of what Gilliam does best—fantasy grounded in reality, F/X that both steal the show and supplement the underlying themes and ideas—you can’t ask for better. At his core, he is an artist more akin to Hans Christian Anderson than any of his Hollywood counterparts, and Munchausen illustrates this in spades. It has all the earmarks of a Gilliam goof (the story within a story set up, the sudden shifts in tone and temperament) but the end result is so enjoyable, so everlasting in its many delights, that it’s as timeless as any fractured fairytale could be.