Terry Gilliam’s Latest Brings No Magic to His Fantasy of Fabled Fabulists
Terry Gilliam really shouldn’t be allowed to shoot without grown-up supervision: He’s a filmmaker who still finds endless hilarity in showing people playing in the mud. Even off screen his career is informed by perverse child/adult role-playing, with the 64-year-old Gilliam casting himself as the bad boy genius vs. assorted ignorant parents/studio heads—in the case of the terrible Brothers Grimm, played out by Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein.
It can be different. When working on somebody else’s naughty business—say, his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—or flirting with adult(ish) concerns (The Fisher King), Gilliam’s wonky brand of hyper-maximalism is fun, if ultimately exhausting.
After the calamities that deep-sixed his dream Don Quixote project, you’d think that Gilliam would have tired of battling windmills real and imagined. But no. As much as Gilliam has publicly bitched about Weinstein’s meddling, almost everything really terrible about Grimm is clearly the fault of its director. In the most disappointing sense, the film is exactly what you’d expect from the ex-Monty Python animator making a fantasy/action re-imagining of the eponymous German folklorists.
The moment that Matt Damon (Wilhelm Grimm) appears on screen attempting a British accent that is meant to signify the foreignness of being German, you consider Gilliam’s possible need to self-sabotage. Grimm was written by Ehren Kruger, he of the horrid Arlington Road, redundant Scream 3 and Ring 2, and god-awful The Skeleton Key. You can assume Gilliam chose the hapless Kruger as well, as he hasn’t complained about him in the press yet.
Kruger’s witless scenario posits Will and Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) as traveling 19th-century countryside con men who stage colorful, contraption-filled entrapments to bilk assorted rubes of disposable income. This countryside being French-occupied Germany, the brothers get in trouble with the mustachio-twirling Napoleon governor Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce, camping up another of Gilliam’s cartoon Gauls). Delatombe captures the brothers and is about to have them mauled by Italian torturer Cavaldi (the only character Gilliam clearly likes, played by an over-the-top Peter Stormare). Instead, it’s decided that the brothers be sent to the miserable village of Marbaden, where the disappearance rate of young maidens is reaching alarming levels.
Turns out Monica Bellucci’s evil Mirror Queen, who’s trying to break out of her confinement in a tower in an enchanted forest, is behind the disappearances. While the brothers attempt to thwart the Mirror Queen, there’s a romantic subplot with a bad-ass village hottie (Lena Headey) that disinterests the director, perhaps as a proactive pout over the fact that Weinstein wouldn’t let him cast Samantha Morton.
Let’s be mercifully quick about the obvious failings here that don’t have to do with Kruger’s gratingly unfunny script. The regrettably plentiful CGI creature effects would make you think someone was pulling a low-res practical joke if you saw them on your Xbox several years ago. This CG is uniformly horrible, and decimates any mood or excitement Gilliam may be trying to evoke.
However ham-fisted, pratfall-ridden, and poorly acted the first two acts may be, at least you get the sense that they’re ham-fisted, pratfall-ridden, and poorly acted on purpose. The finale, however, is a rushed mess. Meanwhile, Will is less a hero than a manifestation of Gilliam’s contempt for traditional character arcs, painting him with a surface gloss of hip cynicism to disguise the director’s romantic bent—because, you know, maverick geniuses such as Gilliam can’t be seen as romantics.
But you could forgive The Brothers Grimm its frailties were they humbly in service to some greater good. In a movie like this, would it really be asking too much to, perhaps, have an opinion on the value of fairy tales? We’re not asking for Jung or Bettelheim here, but aside from a flashback of the brothers as boys that suggests a therapeutic aspect of tale-telling and later reveals itself as a clunky plot helper, Gilliam isn’t interested.
Gilliam is still, at heart, the animator who contributed those amusing cartoons of pre-19th-century icons mucking about Python’s TV show and movies. Between Guy Dyas’ lush production design and Newton Thomas Sigel’s burnished cinematography, the movie looks great, a blend of glowing art nouveau and old Germanic mystery. The themes and characters who occupy this magical world are of secondary importance at best.