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The Brothers Grimm
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Jonathan Pryce
ost fans of the seminal British sketch comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus recognize that, following the cacophony of the show’s theme song—John Philip Sousa’s hearty march, “The Liberty Bell”—the episode’s proceedings only get underway once Terry Gilliam has put his foot down.
The foot in question, a cut-out from a Bronzino painting of Venus and Cupid, crashes from the top of the screen, squashing the song’s (slim) hopes of maintaining its sense of regal pomp and spelling out the show’s madcap manifesto. As the troupe’s animator-in-residence, Gilliam was given free reign (the rest of the Pythons told him how much time he needed to fill) over the hodgepodge of satirical collages that were interspersed throughout the show. This, shall we say, unique vision, translated into what is now a series of films (Time Bandits, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys), is considered by many to be the work of a true auteur.
"You know, stuff like this is the reason why no one ever calls us 'The Brothers Happy and Cheerful...'"
Gilliam’s latest outing, the puzzling, at times outright bewildering, but ultimately revivifying new film The Brothers Grimm ends a seven-year drought, dating back to the once-panned (but now with a wide legion of fans) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as Will and Jake Grimm, two brothers who have made a career out of conning simple townsfolk into believing that they can expel witches and ghouls—all of which have been planted by the Grimms themselves. Eventually found out by a French general (Jonathan Pryce), Will and Jake are sent to a German village where a series of disappearing children is breeding hysteria among the superstitious peasants. What follows is a mixture of Grimm fairy tales, thrown together pell-mell, but all retaining their original flashes of darkness. (In fact, the premise seems a necessary retort to the Shrek films’ comparable fairy tale pastiche.)
On a first listen, the film’s premise sounds like a perfect fit for Gilliam, whose Time Bandits blended a series of historical and mythical figures into one bout of Pythonesque anarchy, and whose original creative drive has always been toward a kind of hybridized stew. Unfortunately, the film suffers from one of the more uneven screenplays in recent memory, written by Ehren Kruger (The Ring), but which has a certain kind of courage to follow its wide-ranging convictions. Characters are established, then dropped; storylines and themes are haphazardly connected; and the tone of the film shoots back and forth with such disorienting frequency that we’re never sure where we’re being taken.
In keeping with this slapdash approach, shades of political and social satire (never far from Gilliam’s point of reference) and sly cinematic homage also pervade the film. In one such instance, a young mother screams for her missing daughter, recalling the shrill cries (El-sie!) that begin Fritz Lang’s M. In another, a pair of slippers clicked together reminds us of Oz (another occasionally dark fantasy world).
Under threat of death, Damon is forced to work with Affleck again...
And say what you will about Ledger (I certainly have) and Damon, but their commitment to these roles, for better or worse, is astonishing given the circumstances. Based on his prior casts, Gilliam works best with actors who are fearless as he is: Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, for example, in Fear and Loathing, or a still-vital Robert DeNiro in Brazil, have all performed bravely under what surely seemed like impossibly silly conditions. For his part, Ledger succeeds because of his erroneous (if lucky) assumption that every movie he’s in is a staging of Hamlet, and Damon’s well-documented workaholism seems to suit the kind of dedication required by Gilliam’s leads. The stand-out supporting characters, among them Pryce and an incomprehensible Peter Stormare, certainly do nothing to diminish the madness.
As for the film’s visuals, here, at last, is the director for whom CGI can actually work. What is often disorienting, occasionally irritating, and mostly just boring in many big-budget studio films, in Gilliam’s hands becomes a tool for some of the movie’s most arresting sequences. In one, a blob of oily black substance morphs into a rotund kidnapper who plucks the eyeballs out of his young victim. These effects are used throughout the films with such subtlety (and occasional not-so-subtlety) that they actually contribute to Gilliam’s omnipresent theme: real wonder in the face of pat finality.
Some will say, with the disastrous failure of the as-of-yet unmade Man Who Shot Don Quixote (the ill-fated filming of which was documented in 2002’s Lost in La Mancha), that Gilliam has lost his touch, the way that other iconoclasts (Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola) periodically slipped following their own calamitous shoots. But, if anything, despite a weak script, The Brothers Grimm reveals a director, if not at the top of his game, on his way to finding it again.
To sum up, The Brothers Grimm is, at times, a nearly incoherent mess, but it is directed by an artist who specializes in nearly incoherent messiness, and who is maybe even invigorated by it. (After all, the filming of Brazil, Gilliam’s acknowledged masterpiece, had its own multitude of on-set difficulties.) The results are predictably mixed, but this—as in much of Gilliam’s work—seems more and more to be precisely the point.
By: Bob Kotyk
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