I really wish Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm was worse. Because then at least it would be a bad movie, and bad movies from great directors can often be as interesting, if not moreso, than good movies by bad directors. I would certainly rather spend time talking about the worst Kubrick film rather than the best Paul “The Bad One” Anderson film. Now don’t get me wrong – The Brothers Grimm is really not very good at all, but it never quite descends to being a disaster, and rather just hovers at generically mediocre.
The plot of the movie is essentially “Hey, you got your The Frighteners in my The Brotherhood of the Wolf!” Will and Jake Grimm travel the vaguely Germanic countryside, ridding small towns of beasties and witches and trolls. It turns out that they’re hucksters, though – they go to improbably lengths to set up hoax monsters that would earn respect from Disneyworld’s imagineers. The French – who have recently conquered Germany – don’t take kindly to this sort of backwoods superstition mongering, so they have the Brothers arrested. But first they need them to investigate other strange happenings at a small town. The Brothers are tasked to find and reveal the hoaxers there as well, but of course it’s no hoax. The ancient spirits and whatnot, angered by the presence of the French, have begun to rise.
If you’ve been reading CHUD.com for any length of time you know that I would like nothing more than to say that the Brothers Grimm, which is about an occupied land rising against invaders, has something to say about the war in Iraq. But The Brothers Grimm has nothing to say about anything at all, not even fairy tales, true love or the relationship of brothers. Gilliam has concocted the perfect studio version of a Gilliam movie – loud, busy and very nicely designed, with plenty of “quirky” elements to sell it to the Hot Topic crowd in the form of toys.
Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are game in their roles as the Brothers – Damon is fun as the boisterous ladies man, while Ledger retains a touch of his Lords of Dogtown speech patterns while being convincingly nerdy and obsessed with nothing but folk tales. But they’re not given much to do except run back and forth and shout and argue. It becomes sadly obvious early on that Ledger’s Brother will be the one who believes quite early but it will take well until the third act for Damon to get hip to the fact that there are real monsters in them there woods. It’s dismally formulaic – like pretty much the rest of the film.
While Ledger and Damon seem to be doing their best with little, Peter Stormare delivers one of the most atrocious performances I have ever seen. He makes John Waters regular Edith Massey look like Meryl Streep. It’s not helped that his character, an Italian master of torture, is completely pointless. He has been sent along with the Brothers by the French baddie – played with visual shame by Jonathan Pryce – to keep an eye on them or something. Apparently he’s meant as comedic relief, but he’s just fucking irritating.
There are some moments in the first hour and change of the film that remind you this is a Gilliam movie – the barn witch at the beginning is fun, and seemingly an homage to Evil Dead. And there’s a werewolf whose transformation is fun. But there isn’t much else, and by the time the climactic battle begins it feels like Gilliam’s gone home to get prepped for Tideland, and let anyone who was on set direct. On top of that, the ending is utterly nonsensical (the properties of a magic mirror change depending on the needs of the script, for one thing. Also, it seems no one in Germany in the 1800s had heard of a ladder). The end of the film is where we get the most Monica Bellucci, perversely hidden under a ton of crappy old age make up as the evil immortal queen.
That character is almost interesting – she seems to be the genesis of the story of Rapunzel. But then she’s also the genesis of the story of the princess and the pea. And probably some others – it soon becomes apparent that Gilliam isn’t exploring the fairy tales or anything interesting like that, he’s just name checking them. The film’s level of reference stays firmly in Shrek territory – ie, someone thought it was clever that Hans and Greta would be out looking for a Gingerbread House (and if someone can explain to me why a pile of mud or possibly shit should turn into the Gingerbread Man at one point, I would appreciate it). The idea that this film came from the same man who made Time Bandits is stupefying.
Tragically, there will be many cretins who think this is a good film. This is Gilliam watered down to the point of being palpable to the ignorant masses – the people who would have liked the Love Saves the Day ending for Brazil is the target audience here. Was there ever a better plan for this movie? We know that there was plenty of studio interference during production, but so many of the problems with The Brothers Grimm stem from Ehren Kruger’s banal screenplay that I can’t imagine this film was ever destined to be anything more than mall theater filler.
Speaking of Love Saves the Day, that is the moral of this particular story, more or less. Gilliam seems to attempt to subvert that right at the end with an ending that dismisses Heath Ledger’s proven true love for the woodswoman Angelika (Lena Headey, an actress so devoid of presence I was planning on not mentioning her at all). It doesn’t work, and the final coda, which seems to threaten a Brothers Grimm franchise, is the most disturbing and Gilliamesque moment in the film, if only because it offers us a glimpse at a future where one of our most intriguing and idiosyncratic directors has been beaten down by the evils of a corporate system. Now that’s the making of a Terry Gilliam movie.
6 out of 10