Once upon a time warp
Terry Gilliam’s ‘comic-surrealist’ fairytales are fun but mostly disappointing
Even if you’re not particularly keen on the idea of Matt Damon and Heath Ledger in a comic adventure and period fantasy, The Brothers Grimm would seem to have quite a lot going for it. After all, it’s directed by Terry Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys, Brazil), whose films are never dull, even when they’re uneven and erratic, and it’s taking on whole worlds of fairytale, romantic adventure and comic-surrealist storytelling.
Sad to say, then, that what Gilliam and company have come up with this time around disappoints more often than not and never really makes good on its most promising possibilities. It’s worth seeing just for its abundance of imagination and invention, for its lavish settings and bizarre detail. But Gilliam’s daring mixtures—of comedy, horror and adventure, in particular—too often prove off-putting in their arbitrariness, and the wildly meandering story strays too far from any real emotional coherence.
The title characters (Damon and Ledger) resemble but do not fully represent the Brothers Grimm of fairytale fame. They are folkloric scholars and con men specializing in elaborately devised and staged cures for sorcery and other “superstitious” phenomena. But when one of their scams is exposed, a French general (Jonathan Pryce) offers them liberty if they’ll go to a certain village where children are disappearing at an alarming rate, find the kids and disperse the spells and sorcerers as needed.
The village in question is a veritable boulevard of distant but familiar fairytale figures—Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella’s Queen of Night, the Beauty and the Beast, etc.—traversing nearby paths and gradually threading their way into proximity with the kidnappings and disappearances. It might be ground zero for primal mythic stories, but it also has a terrifyingly mobile forest of snake-like trees and voraciously gaping maws lurking underground.
The brothers speak much about their relation to “the stories” and both make fine distinctions about whether they find themselves inside The Story or out. And for a while they duel philosophically—the one (Damon) as a rationalist skeptic and the other (Ledger) as an emerging mystic seer. Their competing involvements with the comely, heroically inclined Angelika (Lena Headey) complicate matters in a more conventional way, and the shape-shifting Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci) resides on both sides of the mirror inside a tower that has 12 crypts in its roof.
Ledger and Damon throw themselves into the brother/foil roles with a touching eagerness, and Headey and Bellucci bear up bravely, the one under a great load of plot baggage and the other under swathes of makeup. Pryce brings a certain Monty Pythonesque absurdity to the film’s vaguely Francophobic satire, and Peter Stormare is pointlessly over the top as Cavaldi, the farcically excessive Italian officer.