"Brazil" comes to Washington already a cause ce'le bre. Universal pulled the movie from its schedule last year, and in protest, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association voted it Best Picture; finally, the cowed studio agreed to release the movie. But whatever the seriousness of his intentions and the quality of the production, director Terry Gilliam seems to have taken his inspiration for "Brazil" from that country's jungles -- the movie's an impossible thicket of overblown themes and crackpot dramatics.

The machete, please.

A surreal satire-cum-tragedy vaguely inspired by George Orwell's "1984," "Brazil" (the title comes, actually, from the old big-band bossa nova) takes place in the 21st century, when bureaucracy has got the world in a bear hug. Although his mother's connections could get him a better job, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) huddles in the obscurity of the Ministry of Information. His life is dreary, his work pointless; his only relief is a recurring fantasy in which, winged like an angel and curly-locked, he rescues a beautiful woman and brings her to the clouds.

Early on, "Brazil" bubbles with nightmarish invention, with the peculiarly British facility for lampoon and lunatic free association. There's a hilarious parody of plastic surgery, in which Lowry's dowager mother has her skin pulled back like pizza dough and gathered with giant clips around her ears. The screenplay (by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown) is zingy with satire (asked on television for the reason behind the current rash of terrorism, an official replies sententiously, "bad sportsmanship"). And Gilliam, the animator for the old Monty Python troupe, infuses the frame with comic energy, shooting from odd angles; action (and distorted close-ups) explode directly into the lens.

Willy-nilly, Lowry gets involved in a guerrilla war being fought over the right to repair the heat and air ducts, between the authorized Central Services and a rebellious free-lancer, Tuttle (Robert De Niro). In a botched operation by the elite Department of Information Retrieval (a euphemism for torture), a fellow named Buttle, not Tuttle, is arrested; Jill Layton (Kim Greist), a truck driver and (literally) the girl of Lowry's dreams, witnesses the bungled arrest, and thus becomes the torturers' next target. In an effort to save her, Lowry uses his mother's connections and joins Information Retrieval.

What follows is the most elaborately pretentious chase movie ever made, as if Federico Fellini remade "Cannonball Run." Gilliam never decides whether he's making a light entertainment with some bite, a fantasia, a futuristic thriller, or a grand statement, so he just throws it all at you. The germ of invention that began the movie is lost (the duct motif, for example, is dropped), and the satire that remains turns crude.

The central idea in the design of "Brazil" is that the future looks like the past: The buildings are Art Deco, the men wear argyle sweaters and double-breasted suits, the computers are primitive and ungainly. While some of Gilliam's scenic conception and production design is breathtaking (particularly Tuttle's swinging exits across the asphalt arroyos) and droll (Lowry's mother wears a high-heeled shoe on her head), the vision is similar to, and less consistently imaginative than, Michael Radford's in "1984."

Worse, the self-conscious "impressiveness" of the design yanks the movie out of human scale -- the setting is more important than the people in it. The movie is studded with superb cameo performances, including Bob Hoskins, grinning like a jack-o'-lantern as one of the duct repairmen; De Niro, a warm, openhanded Tuttle; Michael Palin, who makes a frighteningly flippant torturer; and Ian Holm as Lowry's boss, a timid bureaucrat who casts a shadow rather smaller than he is.

You're hungry for Gilliam to build an ensemble out of these players, but he's busy with bigger things, among them the romance between Pryce and Greist, which never generates much heat. The writers haven't given Greist much of a role, but she doesn't bring much to it, either -- she's waxy and inert. And Pryce, nervous and pale, is too wispy to support an entire movie.

In the end, "Brazil" is about the triumph of the imagination, about the place we each keep alive in our minds, a place to escape to when the world is too much -- the "Brazil" of the song's lyrics. But for a meditation on Mittyism, it's remarkably dour. It ends by telling you you can't escape; after suffering the flood of the movie's fantastic elements, that's a slap in the face. At the heart of Gilliam's dispute with the studio was the ending, which Universal thought was too downbeat. For the wrong reasons, perhaps, Universal was right.

"Brazil," opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity, violence and sexual themes.