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Monday 29 August 2005

The Brothers Grimm

Review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Ehren Kruger

Starring Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Monica Bellucci, Tomás Hanák

Both: Terry Gilliam is a brilliant director, responsible for several excellent films. This is not one of them. It's too long, by at least 45 minutes. It doesn't really know what it wants to be: a story of two con men who receive a great lesson (The Man Who Learned Better); an exoteric work on fairy tales, their gathering, and the depth at which they underpin Western society; or a Terry Gilliam movie...

LP: You can see why Gilliam was attracted to the material, touching as it does on his pet theme of the admixture of fantasy and reality. In this, the other Gilliam film it most resembles is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Like Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm is a glorious muddle, but more linear and, strangely, less engaging.

The plot also seems like classic Gilliam territory: The eponymous brothers (Matt Damon nailing the handsome, conniving Wilhem, and an equally apt Heath Ledger as the brainy folklorist Jacob) are traveling con artists, using stage magic to bring local supernatural legends to life, then "slaying" them to earn hefty ghostbusting fees. All goes well until, in French-occupied Germany (a phrase sure to make fact-checkers everywhere do a double-take), the chief of the occupying army threatens them with death unless they can discover who's pulling the same sort of tricks in a local town, where several young girls have disappeared. Once there, they team up with woodswoman Angelika (a lovely, angular Lena Headey), whose two younger sisters are among those seized. Naturally, they discover that this particular haunting is real. Complications ensue.

HW: The production design by Guy Dyas is terrific (and I detect Gilliam's fine eye and hand behind it, too). Everything looks like 19th century Germany; it's all mud streets and crow shit everywhere; geese and pigs there are as common as pigeons here today. The deep forest looks like deep forest. There's a werewolf-cum-Snow White huntsman that's one of the best ever on film. (LP: Personally, I think the werewolf looks about like every other CGI werewolf over the last decade or so.) Nothing is made of the fact that in one scene a Tatzelwurm slithers out of sight — it's a throwaway, unless you've read one of Willy Ley's zoology books, or have researched an awful lot of cryptography. The moving trees make 1962 Triffids noises.

LP: The film this most resembles visually is Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (albeit with a slightly broader color palette), which makes sense because: A) They're both set at roughly the same time, an ocean apart, and B) Burton's design (especially Johnny Depp's headgear) owes an obvious debt to most of Gilliam's own films. (Thankfully, Lena Headey is a much better actress than Christina Ricci.)

Both: The Gingerbread Man is truly frightening, and will give small children (who shouldn't be in this PG-13 audience) nightmares. It's one of those unstoppable Sorcerer's Apprentice things; chop it up, it grows right back, bigger and squishier. And the original Sorcerer's Apprentice didn't steal your eyes...

Ditto the very creepy "infected" horse that swallows the child. All this is very true to the original Grimm's stories (which were very dark and bloody), but none of it has ever been on the screen before. (It takes a Gilliam...)

LP: There is one clichéd element that rears its antennae again and again, and that's the ever-present swarms of bugs that do the evil queen's bidding, which have been used on everything from Creepshow to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Endless Chase Scenes. They seem added in for the generic Hollywood gross-out factor without connection to any underlying folklore.

HW: The fairy tales themselves — those away from the main story — do seem enjambed so we don't forget we're watching what will eventually be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In and of themselves, the interpolated snatches of Red Ridinghood, Hansel and Gretel, etc. are fine, but don't seem to have anything to do with the movie — and the visual and spoken references don't illuminate what's going on here. (The overriding fairy tale — the one in the plot — is a combo of Rapunzel and Snow White — but not really those, either.)

LP: What I think the screenwriter may have been aiming for, and which is rendered rather incoherently here, is the idea that this one story, of the evil enchanted queen in her Thuringian Forest tower, is the Ur-legend from which all other fairy tales flow. But as it stands, the whole thing comes across like a darker version of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods played straight. If it were just the fairy tales being ground out and spackled on This Olde Gothik House, that would be one thing. But there's enough Hollywood flotsam tacked on (the bugs, the one-liners, the "the villain paused just before delivering the killing stroke to savor the moment when suddenly" plot devices (bad enough on its own, much worse when used more than once)) to provide one too many layers of unreality, which, combined with the French army subplot, cause the entire creaky edifice to sink under its own weight.

Save one out-of-control actor (see next paragraph), Gilliam does about as well with the material as you could ask. But Ehren Kruger's script is all over the place, neither fish nor fowl, and constantly crossing that fine line between clever and stupid. (The fact he previously penned such cinematic masterpieces as Reindeer Games and The Ring Two doesn't exactly fill me with confidence in his higher creative instincts.) What was needed here was someone to pare down and hone the script, making it either lighter and more about fairy tales than of them, or else keep it dark, pick one fairy tale, and follow it all the way through. (Read some Tanith Lee for pointers on that one.)

Both: The actors were foisted onto Gilliam by the producers. As such, they're fine. Pryce, reprising an older, Frencher version of the role he played in Munchausen, is largely wasted, but we can watch him in almost anything (to see what he's really capable of, watch his Lytton Strachey — especially his walking stick work (he's the only person ever on screen who uses one like an Edwardian) — in Carrington. The only really strange, inexplicable performance is that of Peter Stormare (probably most famous for feeding his partner to the woodchipper in Fargo) as Italian solider/torturer Cavaldi, whose dentist is probably very, very angry with him right now. "My God, it looks like you tried to devour an entire late Gothic movie set by yourself!" (Worse still, it's an absolutely crucial role, the one character who should change more than any other over the course of the film.) It's like Gilliam told him to ham it up, and not only did he slap on ham, but also bacon, pork chops, and the whole rest of the magical animal. He's like Gregory Sierra or Richard Libertini or Jeffrey Tambour on crank, and belongs in a different movie, say, one about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow by someone living exclusively on absinthe.

HW: If you forget what you know about the real Brothers Grimm (I had to) you can enjoy this movie, up to a point. I think the idea going in was to make a rollicking account of two spiritualist con-men who run up against the Real Thing. That's not what came out the other end. There's too much running around, too much funny torture stuff (like the Keystone Kops at Abu Ghraib) — the offscreen stuff in Brazil was much funnier — and we get the idea long before the characters do.

One anachronism: Willie uses a match to light a lantern in 1811, 29 years too soon. That usually doesn't happen in a Gilliam movie, unless, like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, anachronism is the point.

Both: We wish to hell this had been better, as good as Gilliam is capable of, and as good as the great stuff in here. We wanted this year's Incredibles, not this year's Van Helsing. The problem is, it's not bad at all; it's just too long, too diffuse, and the great stuff makes you want it all to be great.

HW: Along with this I saw the worst set of previews I've seen in the last five years. Wake me up when Tideland opens...

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