FRACTURED Fairy Tale

Disengaged director and unlikable characters make `Brothers Grimm' a tough slog through the woods.

Movie Reviews

August 26, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Brothers Grimm is Terry Gilliam without the hook. Like every film he's directed, it's visually fascinating and stylistically distinctive. But unlike Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys and even a noble failure like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Grimm comes with no built-in reward for watching it.

It's not that the film is without the requisite innovative visuals, and Gilliam remains a conjurer of worlds heretofore unseen. But his latest effort never gets past the suggestion of its title; this is grim stuff indeed, not because of its subject matter, but because it never draws the viewer in. And that's a major disappointment from a director whose work has always been involving, even when it's been incomprehensible.

Much of the problem rests on the shoulders of Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, who play the siblings of the film's title. Both act as though they were told only one thing about their characters, and never bothered to flesh them out further. Ledger's Jacob Grimm, the more studious and, apparently, moral of the two, is all nervous ticks and befuddled looks, ever wary and subservient to his older brother, Wilhelm. Damon's Wilhelm, in turn, is all bluster and recklessness, a leader because he's louder than his brother, and a bully as well.

Neither Grimm comes across as especially interesting to watch, and neither does anything in the movie offer much to get excited about. Gilliam and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring) try to pique the audience's interest by providing a hint of back story, in which a young Jacob squanders the family's hope for survival by trading in the family cow for a handful of magic beans (Jacob, sounds like Jack, get it?). But, since we're never let on to exactly what happened as the result of Jacob's foolishness, the incident stands isolated, and not really essential to the rest of the story.

Grimm might have been a better film if it concentrated on the brothers as they scoured the German countryside, committing the region's folk tales to paper and thus ensuring their own lasting fame. Instead, the Grimms are turned into con artists, bilking superstitious locals of their hard-earned cash by promising to rid their towns of the horrible ghosts lurking about. The ghosts, of course, are merely apparitions produced by the clever craftsmanship of henchmen in league with the Grimms.

The brothers' apparent downfall comes when the conquering French, in the guise of a sadistic general played by Jonathan Pryce, catch on to their game. But rather than send the lads to prison, he offers a chance for redemption: a nearby German town has suffered the disappearance of many of its young girls, and if the Grimms can defeat the assuredly supernatural forces at play here, they can win their freedom.

The trick on everyone is that there really is evil magic afoot in the forest, where a cursed queen - something of a cross between Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel - is trying to stage a comeback. And if it comes at the cost of a few young villagers, well, what's the harm in that, right?

Among the threatened village girls are a host of fairy-tale heroines, including Red Riding Hood and Gretel (of Hansel and Gretel fame). Oddly enough, it's these minor players who seem to inspire Gilliam the most; Red's story, especially, gets the full treatment, with some haunting, evocative visuals that are among the movie's best.

But The Brothers Grimm never soars into the flights of fancy its pedigree suggests, and the lack of inspiration isn't restricted to its stars. While not always the master storyteller, Gilliam has usually been saved by his unrivaled visual sense, but that, too, comes into play only sporadically. Much of Grimm appears listless and confused, and the medieval settings seem like leftovers from Gilliam's earlier films.

Perhaps the director is still smarting from the failure of his last project, a promising version of Don Quixote that fell victim to bad timing, bad weather and bad financing. With luck, Grimm is simply a placeholder, something to tide us over until the next flowering of Gilliam's substantial genius appears.

The Brothers Grimm

Starring Matt Damon, Heath Ledger

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Released by Dimension Films

Rated PG-13 (violence, frightening sequences and brief suggestive material)

Time 118 minutes

SUN SCORE * * (2 STARS)

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