If you crossed Tim Burton with Pier Paolo Pasolini, the resulting film might look like The Brothers Grimm. Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam began his filmmaking career with the grotty Jabberwocky, a riff on provincial mythology. Nearly 30 years later, Gilliam returns to similar territory for The Brothers Grimm, though his high-flying picaresques in the intervening years (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) have left us expecting more from the resolutely iconoclastic filmmaker.
This "once upon a time" tale imagines real-life fraternal authors Will and Jacob Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, respectively) as con-artists. The Brothers Grimm bilk villagers by claiming to rid their communities of dangerous spirits (actually special effects flown on tracks and pulleys). When Will and Jacob run afoul of genuine supernature and dangerous, effete bureaucrats, the artists are in for the fight of their lives, an adventure destined to inspire their future work. In other words, Gilliam has painted another weird and wild self-portrait of the artist as a stung man.
Or the artist as two men, egging each other on. The pragmatic, cynical Will chafes against Jacob, the dreamer (a "magic beans" incident from childhood remains a sore spot between the two); together, they can accomplish art and commerce. Gilliam pokes fun at his personalities, which exploit and underestimate their mass audience—his Grimms are expert bluffers, pioneers of the amusement park attraction and the medicine-show business model.
The boys' comeuppance is also an opportunity for growth. Led by a tough but comely villager (Lena Headey) deep into the forest of Marbaden, the Grimms must scale a foreboding tower to solve the mystery of Karlstadt's missing children. In the tower, they face a threatening, sleeping-beauty Queen (Monica Bellucci), who instructs them, "Truth is much more terrible than fiction." The truth is a corrupt social hierarchy represented by French-occupied Germany (circa 1811), which gives Gilliam full opportunity for the kind of satirical caricatures that best complement his flights of fancy.
At the top of the food chain is a snob of the highest order: French general Delatombe (Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce, happily reclaimed from Pirates of the Caribbean). In the film's best scene, Gilliam rings Delatombe's banquet table with mirrors, an illusion of the elite used to enlarge the occasion. Class is just another con, though men like Delatombe have come to believe their own bullshit. In a typical Gilliam irony, Delatombe smugly tosses Jacob's notebook on the fire: "Farewell to your tales—they will not be remembered!" (Pryce's parting line is a highlight I daren't ruin).
Delatombe's middle manager is a foppish Italian officer named Cavaldi (Peter Stormare at his most insane). Brutish in his protection of his state, Cavaldi gradually awakens to a new reality that questions social and natural order. Trees uproot and creep around the forest, a Grandmother Toad provides (psychedelic?) directions, and the enchanted boomerang axe of the wolf-man turns out to be the best defense against the evil Queen. With all bets off, Cavaldi's loyalty to his abusive master wavers.
Similarly, the brothers's self-interested worldviews begin to turn outward. At first, they're given to stentorian pep talks and, whenever threatened, descents into yelping fear. When they must battle a crone who steals life-spirit from children, the Grimms are put in the position of defending youth, an appropriate precursor to their career writing dark, cautionary fairy tales. Jacob turns a corner when he sees his life as narrative ("The story—it's happening to us now...") and resolves to direct himself to a happy ending.
Gilliam's films always run on a certain amount of dream logic and symbolism, and the Grimm fairy tales provide him with dozens of images to be his passing fancies (among the allusions: "Rapunzel," "Snow White," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Hansel and Gretel"). Wide-angle distortion of magnificent designs defines Gilliam's off-kilter style; kudos to production designer Guy Dyas for crafting the forests, towns, and foreboding chambers, and to Dario Marianelli for a darkly romantic score in the vein of Herrmann. Gilliam appears ill-at-ease with the use of CGI effects: most of the film is properly rough-hewn, but the CGI just looks cheap.
Excepting his dispiriting appearance in Lost in La Mancha, Gilliam has been absent from the big screen for seven years. Lost in La Mancha documented Gilliam's failed attempt to produce a Don Quixote film. The Brothers Grimm, came dangerously close to a similar fate. Plagued by his supposed benefactor, Bob Weinstein, Gilliam supervised Tony Grisoni's rewrites to a script by Ehren Kruger (of Scream 3 fame), cast Damon and Ledger, then fought tooth and nail for creative control over the artistic vision of the production.
The result is easy to recommend but hard to love, distinguished by Gilliam's extravagant and funny style, but compromised by creative warfare and budgetary limitations. The strain is evident: the brothers' personalities and relationships to each other are poorly established, and the film's structure is ungainly. Never finding his groove, Damon is surprisingly dull in comparison to Ledger's hyperactive "Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys" routine. As in so many Hollywood pictures, the climax of The Brothers Grimm is undeniably bloated, but Gilliam infuses it with energy rather than exhaustion. Despite its messiness, The Brothers Grimm deserves credit for its idiosyncratic ambition, and as for happy endings, Terry Gilliam's next film is already in the can.