Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 24, 2005
The Brothers Grimm
Starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Ehren Kruger. Rated PG-13.
Grimm Jokes

Fairy tales can come true. They may even kill you in Terry Gilliam’s fantastical comeback.


When we last saw Terry Gilliam, he wasn’t a happy man. Having failed to interest Hollywood in his attempt to adapt Don Quixote to the big screen, he began shooting the film in Europe on a smaller scale. The project took several years to plan and then about 10 days to fall victim to a near-cosmic run of bad luck. Inclement weather, poor location scouting, an injury to its aged star, and a host of other setbacks led investors to pull the plug, leaving Gilliam and his crew up a creek. All this was caught on celluloid in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s 2003 documentary Lost in La Mancha, which was intended as a “making-of” featurette for the Don Quixote film’s eventual DVD release and instead turned into a chronicle of how many ways a movie shoot can become a disaster.

The Brothers Grimm is Gilliam’s first directing effort since then, and it’s a mess, but then you could apply that term to all his movies. What’s important is that it’s a fairly entertaining mess. Set in 1812 in a Germany occupied by Napoleon’s army, the film stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, two con artists who travel the countryside tricking the inhabitants of small towns into believing that they’re haunted by demons or witches and then bilking the citizens out of their money in exchange for pretending to drive the evil spirits away. When “Will” and “Jake” reach the city of Karlstadt, however, they find themselves up against real supernatural beings controlled by a wicked queen (Monica Bellucci) who lives in a high tower in the woods and is having her creatures snatch up the town’s children, among them Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. The brothers would rather bail because they’re big weenies who scream like little girls whenever they’re in actual danger, but they’re forced to stay and fight by a foppish French count (Jonathan Pryce) who has sicced his soldiers on the Grimms.

Filmed mostly in the Czech Republic, the movie doesn’t have the visual opulence of Gilliam’s Hollywood efforts like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. Presumably if the director had had a Hollywood-sized budget, he’d have found a more convincing blond wig to stick on Matt Damon’s head. In this reduced setting, Gilliam still manages to put together some of his trademark flights of fancy. The Grimms’ initial encounter with a witch is genuinely scary, and there’s a deeply unnerving CGI-aided broad-daylight sequence where some black goo from a well comes to life and takes possession of a girl’s body, piece by piece.

Even the cheapness of the sets winds up working in the movie’s favor. The low-rent look dovetails nicely with the script by Ehren Kruger (The Skeleton Key, The Ring), who treats the fairy-tale milieu as a playground for campy humor — when an old lady at a town meeting mentions “The Cursed One” who lives in the forest, she spits on the floor, and then the sound of all of Karlstadt doing the same fills the soundtrack for the next three seconds. The non-British stars bitch at each other in flickering English accents, as dreamy aspiring writer Jake keeps getting into trouble with practical-minded carouser Will. Perhaps the funniest touch, and certainly the most unexpected one, is Peter Stormare playing an ethically conflicted Italian henchman who works for the French count. Who would have thought this icy Swedish actor could do such a fire-breathing comic turn? Amid the fantastic creatures, this character is the movie’s most vivid creation, frantically adjusting his toupee and muttering imprecations at “the Grimmi.” With its anachronistic zingers and its schlock-magic atmosphere, The Brothers Grimm serves as a darker, more mature, male-driven companion piece to last year’s Ella Enchanted.

Of course, Gilliam’s fans will protest that he’s better than that. Even granting that’s true, the director evidently needed a project on which he could regain his bearings after the traumatic experience of the Quixote film. Bringing this cracked fantasy world to life, even on the cheap, he seems to have rediscovered why he’s in the filmmaking business. The movie itself isn’t a triumph; its story is so incoherent that it’s hard to discern what actually happens during the climax. Still, Terry Gilliam could have done a lot worse than making this ramshackle, accessible, enjoyable picture.

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