There could be no one better than Terry Gilliam to direct a tongue-in-cheek supernatural thriller set in a world of fairytales.
Unfortunately, in "The Brothers Grimm" -- a movie with a Terry Gilliam look and feel but without a Terry Gilliam soul -- the eccentric genius behind "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "12 Monkeys" and "Brazil" seems to have had his spirit broken by studio mandates (like a hottie love interest) and commercial constraints (like a curtailed run time).
Set in French-occupied Germany during the early 19th century, the fable-warping story reinvents the the legendary Grimms as good-natured con artists, who only later became authors, immortalizing the likes of Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin and the Golden Goose by putting their own famous dark-candy spin on familiar folk tales. Here wily huckster Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and frustrated idealistic scholar Jakob (Heath Ledger) are traveling snake-oil salesmen, exploiting local superstitions, staging theatrical hauntings, then peddling their services as ghost busters.
In the early going the film holds the promise of ironic delight. Decked out in chintzy mirrored "armor" and sporting Gilliam-gothic Rube Goldberg gadgets, the siblings easily dupe village after naive village until they run afoul of the haughty French governor (Jonathan Pryce) and his sniveling, blustery henchman (a severely over-acting Peter Stormare). To save their skins from jail, torture and death, the Grimms agree to visit a hamlet where young girls have been vanishing and investigate the supposedly enchanted forest that seems to have turned evil since the French occupation.
The brothers assume their job will be merely to bust some other charlatans horning in on their racket, but they couldn't be more wrong.
By incorporating tweaked (and sometimes satirical) elements of Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty into the plot, writer Ehren Kruger ("The Ring" movies and this month's "The Skeleton Key") created a screenplay full of portent and dark comedy that seems perfectly suited to Gilliam's goofy-footed talents. Production designer Guy Dyas ("X-Men 2") rises to the occasion too, with picturesquely muddy townships and disorienting tendrilled forests of thick fog, migrating trees and the ominous castle ruins.
But the studio's fingerprints are all over the finished picture. From the demographic-friendly, incongruously gorgeous, post-feminist huntress (Lena Heady) who becomes the Grimms' guide to the cost-cutting too-soft CGI effects, to the sometimes disjointed editing that makes it painfully obvious when scenes have been left on the cutting room floor so the film would clock in at under two hours, it's clear Gilliam's vision for "The Brothers Grimm" has been compromised.
With the exception of Ledger, who finds a nerdy, idealistic sincerity that makes Jakob uniquely appealing, and Monica Bellucci, who plays a seductive cursed queen, even the performances of the gifted cast lack the memorable punchiness that is a hallmark of Gilliam's movies.
The result is a film with a grand scale that nonetheless feels watered down and uncharacteristically predictable. What does remain intact, if not at full strength, is Gilliam's absurdist sense of humor. At any moment he chooses, the director can get a laugh out of the cheap clank of fake armor or the sight of enchanted trees sneaking around behind the Grimms' backs to disorient them in the forest.
Such moments only serve as a reminder, however, that this forest is as thick with stifled potential as it is with ambulating arborary, and that when it comes to playing fast and loose with history, Gilliam's "Time Bandits" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" did it better.
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th August 2005
Box Office USA: $37.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $105.3M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Dimension Films, Mosaic Media Group, Reforma Films, Atlas Entertainment, Summit Entertainment, Weinstein Company, The
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%
Fresh: 68 Rotten: 111
IMDB: 5.9 / 10
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Heath Ledger as Jacob Grimm, Matt Damon as Wilhelm Grimm, Mackenzie Crook as Hidlick, Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Mayor, Peter Stormare as Cavaldi, Jonathan Pryce as Delatombe, Monica Bellucci as Königin, Lena Headey as Angelika, Richard Ridings as Bunst, Barbora Lukesová as Mother Grimm, Petr Ratimec as Young Will, Anna Rust as Sister Grimm, Jeremy Robson as Young Jacob, Radim Kalvoda as Gendarme, Martin Hofmann as Gendarme, Josef Pepa Nos as German War Veteran, Harry Gilliam as Stable Boy, Miroslav Táborský as Old Miller, Marika Sarah Procházková as Miller's Daughter, Mackenzie Crook as Hidlick