Film-Forward Review: [THE BROTHERS GRIMM]

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Heath Ledger (L) as Jacob Grimm &
Matt Damon as Wilhelm Grimm
Photo: Miramax

THE BROTHERS GRIMM
Directed by: Terry Gilliam.
Produced by: Daniel Bobker & Charles Roven.
Written by: Ehren Kruger.
Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel.
Edited by: Lesley Walker.
Music by: Dario Marianelli.
Released by: Dimension/MGM.
Country of Origin: USA. 118 min. Rated: PG-13.
With: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Stormare & Monica Bellucci.

In his first film since 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam directs from a self-consciously phantasmagoric script by Ehren Kruger (The Ring Two and The Skeleton Key) in which the Brothers Grimm are playfully rewritten into their own fables. They're bamboozlers in the Napoleonic countryside who con peasants into believing their superstitious fears, extracting a high price to vanquish the witches and banshees of their own imagining. But soon the brothers encounter a truly enchanted forest, and the film quickly accelerates into a variety of fantastic surroundings and surreal visuals that only Gilliam can produce.

The brothers differ in their perceptions of the con man's artful deceits. Jacob (Heath Ledger) concedes he wants to make the world better by giving the comically dirt-smudged peasants the chance to believe in something other their own poverty, whereas Wilhelm (Matt Damon) is adamant that by illustrating people's illusions he is able to exercise a personal control over the universe that has otherwise left him an impoverished vagabond. At one point, in an absurd battle sequence between Wilhelm and General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), the Napoleonic dictator simpers that all he wants in life is to give the world a little order.

All of this allegorical self-commentary from Gilliam is interesting, if blunt, but the main difference between this movie and 8, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and even the more comparable The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is that those fables of morality, psychology, and storytelling were well crafted above the allegory. The Brothers Grimm suffers from clunky dialogue, an unsurprising story line, and a wacky script that competes too much with a dominantly wacky directorial style. Not only is Kruger's script lacking substance, but Gilliam seems more willing to work over it than work with it.

While Gilliam has employed one-note characters to his benefit in the past, the humor that made it work then isn't here now. The same manic acting choices that pervade his films can be seen here, but it doesn't feel right without the outright absurdity of movies like Brazil and Fear and Loathing. Heath Ledger seems like Brad Pitt in Snatch (and more appropriately Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys), trying too hard to be quirky for a director who certainly knows quirky. This is why it's even more a shame that this film cannot decide whether it wants to be bizarre, moody, or suspenseful.

Yet Gilliam's trademark exuberance for the creation of cinematic worlds is spot-on. With great effect, the fantasies of Brazil and Fear and Loathing are scaled down from the believably surreal to the cartoonish and overtly man-made. The film feels like a fable (right down to the clunky characters and story line). The visuals may not pull everything together, but they certainly make for a wonderful children's movie and a worthwhile meditation on a now-legendary director's imagination. Zachary Jones
August 26, 2005

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