Matt Damon, The Brothers Grimm
Credit: Brothers Grimm: Francois Duhamel

Terry Gilliam must marvel, if not weep, at the irony: Hollywood today has been all but taken over by fantasy, yet Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil), the rare fantasy filmmaker who’s a true artist, remains too oddball a talent to fit into Hollywood. Not that he isn’t trying. In The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam’s batty historical fractured-fairy-tale lollapalooza, he comes on as if he were Jean Cocteau attempting to make The Mummy Returns. Gilliam has re-imagined the Grimm brothers, those inventors of Victorian bedtime dream myths, as Will (Matt Damon), a cheeky lady-killing skeptic, and dour, mystical Jake (Heath Ledger), making their way through an early-19th-century Germany overrun by French military men with atrocious accents. (Worst offender: a tie between Jonathan Pryce’s fascist general and Peter Stormare’s horse’s-ass henchman.) The two Grimms are charlatans who set up fake sinister enchantments from village to village, destroying the bogus monsters for profit — only to find themselves trapped in a fantasy that comes true before their eyes.

In a lusciously knotty forest, Gilliam teases us with tidbits of magic. Trees shimmy forth on twisted roots, and a horse shoots a cobweb out of its mouth, all the better to swallow a sacrificial virgin. An ancient stone tower turns out to be the prison fortress of the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci), a raven-haired icon of sultry vanity, cursed with eternal life but not youth, who lies in bed day after day, looking as cadaverous as the grandpa in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Her image, in its way, is a ghoulish wonder, vaguely evocative of Rapunzel and Snow White’s stepmother; other visions, like a glow-eyed hyena, just seem left over from bad horror films. Watching The Brothers Grimm, we keep waiting for Gilliam to fashion the recombinant bits and pieces into something of his own, yet the movie, with its muddy, teeming location backdrops and digitized bugs and demons, is at once frantic and impersonal — a piñata of visual effects that Gilliam keeps smashing, with diminishing returns.

It doesn’t help that the heroes are boring. Damon, outfitted in a long coat, wavy hair, and sideburns that make him resemble one of those mid-’60s English rock stars (Brian Jones? Peter Noone?), and Ledger, looking like a sourpuss in steel spectacles and an unflattering beard, do their best to work up a chipper and competitive camaraderie, but the actors haven’t been given roles that are etched beyond their outlines. The opening 45 minutes are a disaster of dissociated staging, with Gilliam reveling in that affection for mucky village squalor (freshly gutted rabbit, anyone?) that he’s been overindulging since Jabberwocky, in 1977.

The Brothers Grimm comes to life when the Grimms arrive at a village that’s reeling from the disappearance of 10 young girls. The brothers don’t believe, at first, that the otherworldly events are real (”These people are much better funded than we are!” exclaims Will), but they’re convinced by a nifty blob-demon that shifts shape like the Pillsbury Mudboy. A mythology falls into place, yielding a smattering of eerie images, notably when the Mirror Queen confronts her destiny. What the film never does is imbue those visions with an emotional undertow. Strenous yet flat, The Brothers Grimm is a let’s-see-what-sticks spectacle that, coming from Terry Gilliam, is more grim than Grimm.

The Brothers Grimm
  • Movie
  • 118 minutes