Director: Terry Gilliam
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I finished watching The Brothers Grimm last night, this exchange from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus came to mind:
Emperor Joseph II: Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. But there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
Substitute Harvey Weinstein for Emperor Joseph II and Terry Gilliam for Mozart, and you may understand what went awry with this picture.
Terry Gilliam has one of the most distinctive and extravagant visions of any filmmaker who ever lived. His fantastical world view is at its best when it is most fully realized. Unfortunately for Gilliam, he can’t make a movie his way without spending something close to the gross domestic product of Switzerland, and his films are so unique that they rarely come close to making back their investment. Therefore, Gilliam films rarely happen, and when they do, they frequently are compromised by the men with the checkbooks.
I think that Harvey Weinstein/Miramax had good intentions when they signed onto Gilliam’s idea for The Brothers Grimm. It seemed that with the help of CGI, the director’s over-the-top production demands could be met at a fairly reasonable cost. Unfortunately, there is a warmth and craftsmanship to Gilliam’s handmade contraptions and fairy castles that cannot be had with even the best computer graphics available today. And believe me, buying into the extreme world of Terry Gilliam requires the proper setting. That’s why The Brothers Grimm only succeeds by half.
The cast only succeeds by half as well. It was a mistake to put Matt Damon in the role of Wilhelm Grimm, the more pragmatic of the two brothers who are sent to a town in Germany by a lunatic French general (Jonathan Pryce) to find, on pain of death, 10 girls who have vanished. The kinds of parts that fit Damon down to the cuticles call on his talent for alienation and subtle intensity. He simply is not up to playing a P.T. Barnum huckster who makes his living by pulling off bogus exorcisms. His slapstick moments are not funny, and he only makes an impression when he yells at his brother. He’s not even sexy when he’s meant to be. So that’s the one half of the Grimms who doesn’t work.
Heath Ledger as Jacob Grimm is the half who does. He completely disappears into this fairytale fanboy who can’t believe he has stumbled onto a real-life enchantment after years of fervently collecting stories that he silently believes. He is taken with Angelika (Lena Headey), the town’s “cursed one,” not because she’s beautiful and available, but because she’s versed in folk arts and a believer in enchantment. At one point, he must awaken her, like Sleeping Beauty, with a kiss of pure love. The love he uses successfully to revive her is not for her, however, but for the fairytale she stepped out of.
Pryce and Peter Stormare as the French general’s master torturer Cavaldi are silly in the best sense. Both love being ruthless, and both reminded me a great deal of my beloved Captain Hook. Stormare lays on a hilarious Italian accent that had me giggling even as I found some of his antics a bit frightening. That was the perfect combination for this caricature. Pryce, with less screen time, had to make more of it. At one point, a fluffy kitten is kicked into the rotating blades of one of Gilliam’s inventive torture devices in a Monty Pythonesque gag. A bit of puree of kitty ends up on the general’s face. He wipes it off with his finger and eats it, humming his approval at the flavor. I was splitting my sides at this send-up of French gourmandizing. Indeed, the French are thoroughly despised in this film shown from the occupied Germans’ point of view, and this national rivalry becomes a running joke as well.
The film is a bit like a “Where’s Waldo” game that piles too many references to fairytales in for its own good, keeping Jacob scribbling in his notebook almost nonstop. The final battle between the Grimms and a 500-year-old witch played by Monica Bellucci is exciting, but it also is CGI overload that seemed to me like a weak imitation of Sleepy Hollow. Degenerating into noise and catastrophe using fair-to-poor special effects, the plot barrels over the characters and teeters on the edge of incoherence until it reaches its wimpering end. I blame this digital excess entirely on Miramax. If only Gilliam had been able to do it his way.
I don’t know whether to recommend this film or not. It held my attention but it’s a bit of a hash. I say, though, that I’d rather have an original like Gilliam making movies than not. I’m sure I’ll go see his next effort—if he manages to get it made, that is. l