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Brothers Grimm, The Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Here is a film that could have been a feat of adventure and imagination, if only the director had thought to give it an interesting story, an emotional arc, or any kind of focus. Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm has fantastic ideas and visuals that fill every inch of the screen with their wonder, but the film has no idea where it wants to go. The picturesque fairytale settings are left empty as Gilliam and his characters search for a point to this story's ceaseless meanderings; to watch The Brothers Grimm is to scramble to keep up with a wandering mind. What a tumultuous waste of time and talent this movie is, so visibly eager to tell a memorable tale and without a clue as to how to tell it. Though these woods are in many ways enchanted, it is all too easy to get lost among the trees.

To the history of literature, The Brothers Grimm were the collectors and publishers of Western civilizations most cherished fairytales-everything from "Little Red Riding Hood" to "Beauty and the Beast" might've been lost if Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm hadn't preserved them. Their story would make a great biographical film, but The Brothers Grimm is not it; instead, Terry Gilliam pillages his own fantasies and imagines an entirely fictional origin to the Grimm fairytales (although there are some fun cameos-the brothers bump into, among others, a little girl in red skipping through the forest, and a twisted old hag brandishing a curiously shiny apple).

In Gilliam's film, Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger) Grimm are 18th century con artists, who travel from town to town in French occupied Germany pretending to vanquish evil spirits. If a village thinks its borders are cursed by a witch, Will and Jake will stage an elaborate hoax to "dispose of" her. The trembling townsfolk think the curse is lifted, and the Grimms walk away as heroes-and handsomely paid heroes at that.

However, the Grimms get their comeuppance when a French general named Delatombe (Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce) hires Will and Jake to rid a local town of a witch queen who supposedly haunts the forests. The Grimms, guided by a spirit-fearing huntress named Angelika (Lena Headey), venture into the woods to set up their hoax, only to find that the forest really is cursed. The trees scuttle around on their roots and strangle passersby with their branches, and a mysterious wolf stalks in the shadows. Worst of all, the witch queen (Monica Bellucci) does exist and indeed does have a terrible curse placed on the village. The question is, can the Grimms be just as brave when faced with real magic?

The plot to The Brothers Grimm is not nearly as simple as it sounds. I have only recounted the basic story, which in the actual movie is nearly invisible beneath the layers of dead-end tangents and wayward subplots. an entire quarter of the movie is wasted on a useless character called Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), who is Delatombe's representative on the Grimms' quest. And the wolf is a ridiculous addition too-it turns out to have relevance to one of the characters, but it entirely distracts from the film's fraternal protagonists. The audience crawls and weaves through this film's bulky story until the frustration becomes unbearable. Where is all of this going? Why can't it find a straightforward narrative and stick to it? It's too ironic that the Grimm fairytales are timeless for their simplicity of style and virtue, while this movie's sheer bloat prevents it from taking any flights of fancy.

A major problem is in the way Will and Jake Grimm are characterized. They're confusing and inconsistent. Typically, Will is the brash, cynical leader, while Jake is timid and idealistic. However, at random moments, Will can be a huge softie and Jake can be uncommonly brave. Sometimes the brothers are wry, heartless con artists, sometimes they're selfless humanitarians, sometimes gung-ho action heroes, sometimes soulful poets. There is no rhyme or reason to these mood swings-basically, Will and Jake's personalities change whenever The Brothers Grimm needs them to. And then this film has the gall to expect us to care about them. Care about them? The Big Bad Wolf is more believable as a sympathetic character.

Terry Gilliam's films exist in a secret, surreal corner of the cinema, in worlds and with characters that only Gilliam's chaotic imagination could create. Brazil, Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys-these films grab hold of such elusive, otherworldly things, as if Gilliam has committed our very nightmares to celluloid. The Brothers Grimm, on the other hand, wriggles free from Gilliam's grip and becomes a nightmarish mess. It's storytelling at its worst-whimsy without reason, adventure without tension and fantasy without heart.

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