In the latest edition of Entertainment Weekly, Terry Gilliam bellyaches about the poor quality of today’s movies, in the process singling out Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton as two directors on a decline. He should have turned a critical eye toward his own ivory tower, as his Brothers Grimm makes a far more potent contribution than either Spielberg’s War of the Worlds or Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the sorry state he bemoans.
Unfit for a queen: Bellucci and Ledger
Despite his undeniable qualities as a cinematic visionary, as a creator of visual extravagance and soaring flights of fantasy, Gilliam has long had a history of troubled productions. And yet through it all, he has created some profoundly memorable and lasting films — notably Brazil, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. Brazil remains an oddity that seems less groundbreaking now than it did in the mid-80s, but Fisher King has an emotional resonance that remains largely intact, thanks to stunning performances from Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Jeter and Amanda Plummer. As for 12 Monkeys, it’s probably Gilliam’s pinnacle achievement, an insanity-driven sci-fi ride through time that rips and roars and twists and turns toward a mind-jolting finale.
With all three films, you knew you were ensconced in a Terry Gilliam creation. Not so The Brothers Grimm. If you didn’t know Gilliam had directed it, you’d probably think it was made by a kid fresh out of film school (and a bad film school at that). An $80 million exercise in pointlessness, the movie — starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as those famed purveyors of fairy tales Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm — has been sitting on the shelf since 2003. It’s not just a mess, it’s a painfully static mess, like a ball of crud that sits squarely in the middle of a room, patently ignored by all until a Roomba happens to zip along and scoop it up.
It’s unclear why Gilliam was attracted to the plebeian script by Ehren Kruger, other than to get a crack at depicting a forest in which CGI-trees creep along the power of their own roots. The story explores, in the most obvious of ways, the origins of folk tales, as well as the sibling rivalry between brothers Jacob and Will Grimm, who, we learn in a prologue that lasts all of one minute, are forever tormented by an encounter at an early age with a dying sister and a handful of magic beans.
The Grimms are depicted as con artists with Will the charmer, forever having his ways with the ladies, and Jacob the scholar, forever scribbling notes in his journal. The pair travel the countryside ridding French-occupied German villages of witches, trolls and evil spirits, their exorcisms elaborately staged creations utilizing smoke, fire, pulleys and springboards. When called upon to investigate the disappearance of young girls in the village of Marbaden, they uncover a genuine enchanted force and realize that sometimes fairy tales are indeed the real thing. Think of it as an 18th century CSI.
Will and Jacob venture into the crow-infested woods to confront an evil Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci), fend off some rather vicious trees, find the missing girls, fight a werewolf and lick a toad, not necessarily in that order. Do they emerge from the experience better men? Not really. Do they emerge better brothers? Perhaps. Do they emerge with enough material to fill a book? Absolutely. How about that?
Those who might cite as a plus the special effects should look no further than the poorly-produced CGI sequence involving a bloblet of black mud that turns into a ”gingerbread man.” Still, my money for the film’s worst effect is on the Mirror Queen’s old-age makeup, which looks like it was bought in the Halloween aisle at Wal-Mart.
Damon and Ledger do their best to enliven things, but their performances are so broad it’s hard to take them, or the situation, seriously. Gilliam-favorite Jonathan Pryce hamfists his way through the role of a French general, while Peter Stormare, as a torture-happy Lieutenant, seems lost in a character he can’t quite control.
Gilliam has a history of blaming studios when his films go wrong. But he has no one to blame but himself for this poisoned apple. The director seems to have run out of creative fuel, but not gas. He’s got plenty of that to spare — and The Brothers Grimm is all bloat. They don’t call ’em stinkers for nothing.