The Brothers Grimm
Director : s Terry Gilliam
Screenplay : Ehren Kruger
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Matt Damon (Wilhelm Grimm), Heath Ledger (Jacob Grimm), Jonathan Pryce (Delatombe), Lena Headey (Angelika), Peter Stormare (Cavaldi), Monica Bellucci (Mirror Queen)
The Brothers Grimm is Terry Gilliam's attempt to sell out to the Hollywood establishment by making a fully commercial movie. The fact that it doesn't quite reach sell-out status is a relief, although it isn't vintage Gilliam, either. Instead, it stands awkwardly in the middle, teetering between a wanna-be blockbuster and another of Gilliam's subversive madhouse contraptions. Despite working with two well-known actors in the lead roles, an $80 million budget, a high-concept script by go-to genre scribe Ehren Kruger (The Ring), and the vigilant oversight of former Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, The Brothers Grimm was destined to become a mutant half-breed .
Simply put, Gilliam, the Monty Python alum and unruly auteur behind 12 Monkeys (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and, his most notoriously difficult production, Brazil (1985), is not for the masses. He thrives on difficulty and conflict, which is what gives his films either their eccentric brilliance (Brazil, Time Bandits) or their self-indulgent messiness (Fear and Loathing). Perhaps if he had been given truly free reign over The Brothers Grimm, he could have made something memorable out of it, but as it stands now, it is an intriguingly muddled fantasy-adventure with a vein of off-handed humor that keeps it interesting, but never fully takes over as it should.
Matt Damon and Heath Ledger star as the titular brothers, Will and Jacob Grimm, who make their living in 17th-century French-occupied Germany traveling the countryside and exploiting villagers' fears about witches, trolls, and other demonic forces by setting up faux scenarios and then swooping in to save the day ... for a price. Will is the cynical of the two, his brute pragmatism shielding him from feeling any remorse for the peasants he cheats, whereas Jacob is a dreamer, whose awkwardness and insecurity is a byproduct of constantly having his head in the clouds. Their divergent life views are the fundamental source of all their antagonism toward each other, stemming from a pre-credits sequence where Jacob as a child sells the family cow for supposedly magical beans, thus dooming his sister to death.
When pressed by a ruthless French general (Jonathan Pryce) who doesn't like their practices, Will and Jacob end up taking on a real enchanted forest dominated by an evil queen (Monica Belluci) searching for eternal life. The forest, which is home to sinister moving trees, a Big Bad Wolf, and a lot of creepy-crawly bugs, has been stealing away young girls from a nearby village. Thus, the churlish forgers of magical battle find themselves facing down the real thing, which more often than not causes them to scream like little girls, turn tail, and run (surely one of Gilliam's finest anti-Hollywood touches). They are helped by a shunned local woman named Angelika (Lena Headey), who skins rabbits, is handy with a bow and arrow, and knows the forest well, but is ultimately most important (and dull) as a requisite love interest over whom the brothers can quarrel.
At its best, The Brothers Grimm evokes a completely enveloping world of magic and mystery. (The enormous and impressively mounted sets probably used up all the production money, which may explain why the digital effects are so embarrassingly cartoonish.) The story is sprinkled with visual dashes the evoke the Grimm fairy tales to be, including the Freudian imagery of Little Red Riding Hood making her way through the tangled forest and a wicked reworking of Rapunzel's lengthy locks. Gilliam has worked similar historical mise-en-scene before, most notably in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) and Jabberwocky (1977), both of which went a long way in reimagining the medieval era in terms of dirt, smoke, and clutter. The Brothers Grimm has a somewhat cleaner atmosphere, although Gilliam never shies away from mud and grime when he has the chance.
The background details in The Brothers Grimm, whether it be the enchanted forest or the cobwebby inner sanctum of the evil queen, constantly threaten to overwhelm the actors, although they do their best to ham it up mightily. Damon and Ledger both step outside their cinematic comfort zones to make the Grimms sometimes delightfully antiheroic, although it is Peter Stormare who eventually steals the show as Cavaldi, a hilariously mush-mouthed Italian officer whose wild gesticulations, incoherent speech, and constant flip-flopping make him the ultimate post-Python Gilliam jester.
There is a clear narrative course in The Brothers Grimm, a standard Hollywood mission that must be accomplished, and the film follows it dutifully, straight into a sun-drenched happy ending that almost plays as a parody of itself. This is where we can sense Gilliam trying to play on the straight and narrow. Yet, there are constant little detours -- throwaway moments and bizarre details, including a cute little kitty that meets a surprisingly nasty demise -- that keep the film from moving too smoothly along its high-concept tracks. In a sense, this makes the film more interesting, but it also makes it a frustrating experience, especially for those who appreciate Gilliam at his manic, unrestrained best. The Brothers Grimm is ultimately proof that the middle of the road, while seemingly safe, is sometimes not the best place to be.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Dimension Films