Over a career spanning a quarter of a century, The Brothers Grimm’s director Terry Gilliam has become almost as legendary for movies that were never seen'or almost never seen'as for those that were. In 1985, it took a full-page ad in trade magazines and enthusiastic support from critics’ groups for Universal Pictures finally to release his bleak Brazil. Budget battles nearly resulted in his firing from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. An entire documentary'last year’s Lost in La Mancha'was devoted to Gilliam’s inability to complete The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Rarely has a filmmaker collided so conspicuously with the realities of the movie business.
If you look at his movies, it’s easy to see why'reality is a pretty fluid concept in them. Brazil, Munchausen and The Fisher King all featured protagonists who escaped into fantasy worlds of their own creation; altered realities featured prominently in Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So it shouldn’t startle anyone that The Brothers Grimm'which spent its own year on the shelf'once again finds Gilliam exploring realms beyond easy comprehension. Or once again creating unique cinematic delights in those realms.
The high concept in the script by Ehren Kruger (reportedly drastically rejiggered by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) looks intriguing enough on its own: Though known throughout history for collecting fairy tales, Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) were also early-19th-century con artists. Making use of their knowledge of folklore, the siblings roam the countryside of French-occupied Germany creating smoke-and-mirrors shows of dispatching supernatural beasts'who are in fact actors in costumes'and earning a tidy living for their faux ghostbusting.
But the local French commandant (Jonathan Pryce) has gotten wise to their scheme, and compels them to assist in quelling a disturbance in the region of Marbaden. Young girls are disappearing, and the Grimms are to find the presumably flesh-and-blood kidnapper'although the nearby forest seems to have some unique properties.
Gilliam’s work is most decidedly a particular taste, and while The Brothers Grimm certainly leans toward the more conventional side displayed in The Fisher King, it still may not be the kind of film to convert nonbelievers. Sets and costumes still tend toward the dark and grungy (it wouldn’t be a Gilliam film without someone at some point covered in filth). Supporting characters are still often grotesques, like Peter Stormare as the happy torturer assigned to keep watch over the Grimms. And there are still twisted bursts of visual invention, like a child’s face being stolen by a shapeless glop that eventually turns itself into a gingerbread boy. Whatever Gilliam sees in his head at night, be thankful you don’t live there.
Yet there’s also plenty that’s purely entertaining about The Brothers Grimm'most notably the brothers themselves. Matt Damon continues to irritate the hell out of people who think it’s unfair that a guy this pretty should also be this talented and versatile; his willingness to play a shrieking coward undercuts any perceived movie-star aura. Heath Ledger, meanwhile, turns in a companion piece to his stoner surf guru from The Lords of Dogtown, another enjoyably twitchy burst of eccentricity as the more bookish Jacob. The two make a great screen pair, anchoring a narrative that swings from creepy suspense to slapstick and back again.
The centerpiece of that narrative, however, is a subject that has fascinated Gilliam for the entirety of his filmmaking life'imagination as a source of power. Gilliam is goofing with tropes like magic mirrors, wicked witches and sleeping beauties that were created to keep young people in line, but as was the case in Brazil and Munchausen, magic and fantasy in The Brothers Grimm become acts of rebellion against the oppressive hand of a controlling authority. No wonder the guy chafes when wrangled by studio suits.
On a certain level The Brothers Grimm feels like a minor work in the Gilliam oeuvre, a movie that fumbles with the kind of happy ending the director includes only while holding his nose. But it’s still a thrill to watch him craft dreamscapes so distinctly his own. His next project is an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel Tideland, about a troubled girl who escapes into communication with her Barbie dolls. That’s just the kind of world in which Terry Gilliam belongs.