In Terry Gilliam’s phantasmagoric cosmos, the earthly and the imaginary coexist in semi-harmony, and The Brothers Grimm finds the director—after taking a detour to surrealistic America for The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—returning to the gnarled European countryside to probe the peculiar matrimony between fantasy and reality. Long-delayed by Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein because of (alleged) “creative differences” with its director, Gilliam’s first film in seven years is a fairy-tale origin story in which titular 18th-century storytellers Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger) Grimm are itinerant charlatans who bilk superstitious nitwits by posing as mystical creature exterminators. Jake is a dreamer with faith in the fantastic while brother Will, still smarting over Jake’s childhood sale of the family cow for magic beans, is a dogged pragmatist. Their contentiousness is rooted in divergent beliefs in the ordinary and the extraordinary, a clash that forms the central dynamic for Gilliam and screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s rollicking mix-and-match approach to classic fables such as Jack and the Bean Stalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Rapunzel, all of which intertwine throughout the Grimm boys’ adventure.
Collaborating with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and production designer Guy Dyas, Gilliam fashions a dreary, filthy Napoleon-conquered Germany whose bleakness is broken up only by the garish opulence of the French conquerors (led by Jonathan Pryce’s Delatombe) and the golden, slightly scary loveliness of an enchanted forest on the outskirts of ramshackle town Marbaden where nine young maidens (including Little Red Riding Hood and Gretel) have mysteriously gone missing. The film’s aesthetic is what might be called “storybook grotesquery,” a quirky visual and narrative combination of monstrous caricatures, low-brow slapstick gags (highlighted by an off-screen bit about mass spitting), and a supernatural-tinged world whose charm is due, in part, to its menacing deformity.
Damon sticks out like a sore thumb in this mythical playland, his vanilla stolidity and lame English accent faring poorly alongside Ledger, whose manic fidgetiness (akin to Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys) is appropriately tuned into Gilliam’s gonzo frequency. And while Pryce is suitably flustered and foolish as one of the director’s trademark petty bureaucrat villains, Peter Stormare achieves a level of such marvelously over-the-top, cartoonish insanity as Italian “master of the torturing arts” Cavaldi that it’s a wonder the film doesn’t literally implode under the strain of his flamboyantly lisping, flailing exercise in whirling dervish performance art.
Sadly, Kruger’s script, influenced by the likes of Gregory Maguire’s revisionist Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, isn’t worthy of Stormare’s lunatic brilliance, failing to reinvent its timeless children’s yarns and only cursorily investigating the relationship between truth and fiction as it rumbles from one farcical scenario to another involving Will and Jake’s attempts to defeat a long-dormant queen (the terrifyingly ravishing Monica Bellucci). Gilliam’s finest efforts, overstuffed with all sorts of grand ideas, non sequiturs, and asides, always seem poised to discard straightforward narrative linearity, and thus The Brothers Grimm’s clean-cut, Point A-to-Point B plotting (which includes a dull romantic thread involving Lena Headey’s token love interest) results in an unwelcome, pedestrian leanness.
Dario Marianelli score, which recalls Paul Buckmaster’s carnivalesque accordions on Twelve Monkeys, is bouncy and boisterous, but whether it’s the result of Weinstein stinginess or Gilliam’s less-than-adept technological prowess, the film’s plentiful CG creations—including the shape-shifting Big Bad Wolf, armies of creepy-crawly bugs, and a forest of ambulatory trees—look rubbishy. Nonetheless, although perhaps unworthy of inclusion in the Grimms’ fairy-tale collection, even this substandard Gilliam lark generates a moderate amount of idiosyncratic, frolicking magic.