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The Brothers Grimm   C

Dimension Films / MGM Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Peter Stormare, Lena Headey, Jonathan Pryce, Monica Belluci.

Review by Rob Vaux

There is not a filmmaker alive who I admire and respect as much as Terry Gilliam. His vision is unparalleled; he has created some of the most wondrous and unique movies in history, often in the face of vicious studio opposition. His talent is matched only by his iconoclasm, which refuses to accept compromise, homogenization, or lowered standards. The arrival of The Brothers Grimm marks his first directorial effort in seven years, and has set his fans aquiver with giddy anticipation. It's heartbreaking, then, to watch what should be a triumphant return slowly dissolve into tattered mediocrity.

Certainly, the elements are in place to make something truly great. Gilliam's work has always had a flash of Grimms' Fairy Tales to it; what better choice for a project than a revisionist take on the brothers themselves? The premise is a delight, positing Wilhelm Grimm (Matt Damon) and his brother Jacob (Heath Ledger) as amiable con artists in Napoleonic Germany. They scare local villages with bogus hauntings, then arrive to "vanquish" the phony monster and collect a generous gratuity in the process. On a more personal level, the two stand on opposite sides of Gilliam's usual fantasy vs. reality dichotomy. Will is a hardheaded pragmatist with little interest in flights of fancy. Jake, on the other hand, is more of a dreamer, though his fantasies are tinged with guilt from a childhood incident involving the purchase of some "magic beans" for the pair's dying sister. Each brother is aware of the other's predilections, and neither is entirely comfortable with them.

Their unease only intensifies when larger forces conspire to disrupt their lives. The French army -- one of Gilliam's ungainly bureaucracies, headed by the obsequious Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) -- captures the brothers and brusquely dispatches them to another supposedly haunted village. If they can "save" it the way they've saved so many others, Delatombe will spare their lives; he sends a surly Italian torturer (Peter Stormare) with them to make sure they get the point. The only trouble is, this particular village isn't suffering from a snow job: it's a real haunting, with real monsters and a real undead queen (Monica Bellucci) who has some very wicked plans for the local crop of little girls.

With material like this, Gilliam should be firing on all cylinders, and there are moments when his visual magic comes roaring to life. The trees in the queen's forest, for example, have a way of changing positions on the unwary, scuttling back and forth on their roots like giant spiders. There's a wonderfully realized big bad wolf, too, who carries a strange connection to the tomboy tracker (Lena Headey) tasked to help the brothers. The film is redolent with images like these, and the landscape -- both physical and psychological -- just screams for Gilliam's trademark battle between wild imagination and stifling mechanization. And yet somehow, with depressing regularity, The Brothers Grimm fails to capitalize on that potential. The biggest issue lies in its slapdash structure, which pays only cursory attention to the dramatic needs of the plot. Scenes are developed with very little exposition, growing confused and haphazard when they should be grabbing us by the throat. Gilliam's madcap Pythonesque humor is in evidence (striking a similar tone to his early effort Jabberwocky), but its frantic energy often covers up for lengthy patches of incoherence.

Adding to the problem is a frustrating lack of focus, as The Brothers Grimm crams an avalanche of ideas into its distressingly overworked frame. Too many figures clamor for our attention; too many secondary characters require lugubrious exposition. The classic figures of Grimms' Fairy Tales, such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, make prominent appearances, and although they are rather elegantly shoehorned into the storyline, they must compete with more important characters to the detriment of all. Subplots pile atop each other with dizzying speed; each one is interesting in and of itself, but together they create a terrible mess. The film would have benefited immeasurably if it had the discipline to drop a few of its concepts -- no matter how tantalizing they may have appeared -- and honed the remainder to sharper points.

The acting, too, suffers from a scattershot approach. Gilliam's films have produced a regular crop of Oscar nominees, so it's shocking to see such a talented cast struggle so much here. Damon is out of his element amid the phantasmagorical European landscape, while Stormare and Pryce dreadfully overplay their hands. Stormare is particularly surprising, given his track record of fine supporting performances; here, he's a walking disaster, his shameless mugging and ridiculous accent flailing about in a misguided attempt at zaniness. Thankfully, Ledger seems much more comfortable with the material than his co-stars, and Bellucci's ravishing Mirror Queen gives the proceedings a proper sense of dread.

Such bright spots only go so far, however, as shoddy construction and a lumpy presentation conspire to thwart the film's lofty goals. Stories have abounded about another behind-the-scenes clash between Gilliam and the relevant studio head, in this case Harvey Weinstein. Certainly a tug-of-war from two such implacables could account for the mixed results on display. But regardless of the cause, The Brothers Grimm represents a big step down, both for Gilliam and for the auteurial canon that he has fought so hard to create. No truly bad film can be so disappointing, for rarely have expectations been so sky-high. To see what The Brothers Grimm aims for -- to see how wonderful and glorious it could have been -- is to curse it all the more as it slowly loses its way.

Review published 08.25.2005.

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