The Brothers Grimm
directed by Terry Gilliam
(Dimension, 2005)

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, after a brief flirtation with magic beans in their youth, travel the land -- French-occupied Germany in the late 18th century -- exorcising spirits, banishing witches and battling trolls. At least, that's what the gullible villagers think as they fork over their hard-earned cash to the brothers, whose witches and ghosts have more to do with disguises, props and some sleight of hand than actual occult forces.

Wilhelm (Matt Damon) is the chief conniver, the smooth-tongued snake-oil salesman and wooer of villagers' daughters. Jacob (Health Ledger) is his gullible sidekick, a dreamer and collector of tales who still believes those darn beans should have worked.

Captured by a logical French general (Jonathan Pryce) and unmasked as the frauds they are, the brothers are sent to a town stripped of its color and most of its children by a malevolently enchanted forest surrounding them. They must expose the tricksters at work there or be executed for their crimes.

But the Grimms, masters of their own trickery, are ill-equipped to deal with real magicks. And the forest, with its shape-changing wolf/huntsman, ambulatory trees, doorless tower and deathless queen, is overflowing with sorcery far beyond their understanding. Their encounters, of course, are packed with subtle and not-so-subtle references to popular fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

With a clever idea for a plot, a strong cast and director Terry Gilliam at the helm, The Brothers Grimm should have been an obvious winner. Unfortunately, Gilliam dropped the ball on this one, forcing clever twists and visual effects into the film without direction or cohesion. It's flashy, sure, and oh so busy, but at its heart, the movie is as dull as the village's palette. The story makes little sense and the humor is uncharacteristically jarring.

Damon and Ledger are both good in their roles, and with proper direction could have made this movie work. And yet, when the movie ends we're still uncertain who these two brothers really are. As cursed huntress Angelika, Lena Headey seems to be waiting for something to do. And as Italian torturer Cavaldi, Peter Stormare capers about the scenery with pitiful menace, annoying rather than funny. Monica Bellucci, as the sorceress queen, is exactly what she needs to be: beautiful, cold, as two-dimensional as her mirror's image. Expanding her role might have helped.

The Brothers Grimm was, by all accounts, hamstrung by innumerable problems on the set and in the producer's office. Perhaps if Gilliam had been allowed to pursue his vision unhampered by Hollywood politics, the movie would have emerged as a polished gem instead of this muddy mess. Let's hope Gilliam scores better on the next one.

by Tom Knapp
3 September 2005

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