‘The Brothers Grimm’

Those who have a taste for Terry Gilliam’s work will find much to enjoy, and much to annoy, in this latest hodgepodge.

By: Bob Brown
   Back when the Grimm boys were operating, there were no movies, no special effects, no surround-sound systems. You just had a storyteller and a moonlit, chilly night in some cottage on the edge of town. The Grimms were afraid the oral traditions would disappear, so they collected and collated them, with the help of others.
   The way Terry Gilliam sees it, the Grimms would have made good horror movies. At least that’s what his pairing with Ehren Kruger (The Ring, Skeleton Key) suggests. Now Mr. Gilliam is no stranger to strangeness. Having cut his teeth as the visual-effects partner of Monty Python, he’s gone on to create a special brand of cockeyed visuals and narratives (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys).
   Here he is up to his usual tricks as chief high priest of baroque weirdness. If an 18th-century German village requires timbered hovels and buildings with purposeless turrets, he orders them up as dark and gnarly and encumbered with excess as he can. Everything was shot on Nazi-era back lots in Prague, where the scaffolding was telephone poles instead of steel, and where village sets were created from old, torn-down barns. The settings, not to mention the costumes, almost overwhelm the characters with their insistent presence. It’s like reading a Mad magazine from the glory days.
   Details are both the delight and the bane of a Terry Gilliam film. Somewhere from out of this distracting mess emerges a story, its wooden wheels cranking, straining at its chains to be set free. But there are so many ideas. And no wonder. As Gilliam describes it in publicity material from Miramax, the movie emerged, not from a script, but from a dress pattern contributed by many heads.
   "I guess that’s my job," he said, "to corral, to herd this gaggle of geese ideas! Idea! No, my idea! And I just sort of keep them coming down the road and hopefully the carriage doesn’t come around the corner and squash them! I know what I’m trying to do and I’m like a big sponge of other people’s ideas. I like that one, that’ll go in! Or that gives me a better idea, and my better idea might give them a better idea."
   At the center are Will and Jake Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) — not the historically accurate brothers, but Mr. Gilliam’s idea of a fairy tale about them. Presented as charlatans who perform ghost- and witch-busting services, they collect the stories while they’re fleecing the public with staged special effects. Their hands are full, however, when they are confronted by French occupiers who are onto their schemes. General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) and his toady, the Italian Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), are bent on running the two out of the region. But there is the small problem of a real curse which is snatching away village girls and secreting them somewhere in an enchanted forest.
   With the help of Angelika (Lena Headey), a trapper who has lost her father and sisters to the mysterious curse, the brothers brave the woods to find the girls and break the spell. Woven into the tale are a shape-shifting wolf, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel.
   Gilliam’s Monty Python heritage shows through at odd moments in this disjointed narrative. Bits of stupid slapstick interject within moments of tension-building horror. Eventually, the horror film takes over and the narrative accelerates, leaving behind the minutely observed absurdities of its plodding beginnings.
   The choice of Damon as Will is an odd one. He seems a bit lightweight for the part. Johnny Depp, who was originally supposed to take the role, would have been more interesting and in keeping with Gilliam’s style. Others who fit rather better are Stormare, who wears his outlandish part brilliantly, and Pryce, who achieved stardom with Gilliam as the Sam Lowry in Brazil. In an effective cameo role is the dazzling Monica Belucci as the Mirror Queen. It’s also delightful to see character actor Mackenzie Crook, late of the British humor series The Office, in a small role as Hidlick, a Grimm partner in crime.
   Gilliam is not one who plays well with others, so there were apparently some stormy moments on the set. The original cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini, was fired by the producers and replaced with Newton Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Three Kings). Whatever Pecorini’s failures were, the murky, brooding look of the film is perfectly in keeping with the set designs. The score by Dario Marinelli is serviceable. Humorous musical references are also woven into several scenes and will be appreciated by the classically knowledgeable.
   Those who have a taste for Terry Gilliam’s work will find much to enjoy, and much to annoy, in this latest hodgepodge. It’s a compilation of his best and his worst attributes. Were the Brothers Grimm alive today, they might well consider suing for defamation of character on some grounds. But hey, it’s only a fairy tale.
Rated PG-13. Contains violence, frightening sequences and brief suggestive material.