Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm has more in common with the Germany that beget Jägermeister and Arnold Schwarzenegger than it does the Germany of black forests, wicked witches and runaway gingerbread men. Gilliam's supersized fable turns the German brothers Wilhelm and Jacob, who wrote such classic 19th-century fairy tales as "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," into die-hard action heroes "Will" (Matt Damon) and "Jake" (Heath Ledger).
Ledger and Damon, who look like a remake of the blandly Caucasian dream team of Affleck and Damon, are con artists who travel French-occupied Germany. They bilk gullible locals and line their own pockets by pretending to exorcise witches and ghouls with a Vegas-style floor show of jury-rigged effects, not unlike Gilliam's own propensity for bells-and-whistles filmmaking.
Wedding a Ghostbusters plot line with the soul of a beer commercial, Brothers Grimm immediately establishes its laddish ways. After ridding a village of its resident witch, the boys unwind in a rollicking pub complete with giggling blond twins invited by randy Will to play a game of "Who's the Fairest of Them All" in his bedroom.
But the two dudes are eventually intercepted by a French general (Jonathan Pryce) and forced to exorcise the evil force abducting little children from the village of Marbaden.
Their efforts are hampered by the general's minion, a taffy-faced Italian Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), part of the film's arsenal of limp comic effects. In Marbaden, the smirking Grimms get serious and cut the homoerotic tension with a village hottie (Lena Headey), who helps them understand that the forest really is beset by "evil enchantments." The action-adventure rigamarole is interspersed with attempts at atmosphere in a weak homage to the original Grimm tales: Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk juiced up with "Tales From the Crypt" trappings.
The Grimm tales are, of course, exceedingly straightforward: girl leaves path, meets wolf; kids wander into woods, meet witch. But they're laden with psychologically gooey subtext.
Fairy tales are stocked with absent and abusive parents, vanished children, and a perpetual fear of abandonment. But Gilliam is after lower-order thrills. The father of three seems more creeped out by the rivers of worms and beetles that scurry about the Marbaden woods than by one of the nightmares that was as scary in the 19th century as it is today -- child abduction.
In his run of iconoclastic fantasies (Brazil and The Fisher King), Gilliam has remained an inveterate gothic fiddler on a big budget. But when his patented brand of scenery-chewing -- grandiose characters, manic acting, expressionistic sets -- goes awry as it does in Brothers Grimm, it can make you feel like an agoraphobic at a clown convention. Just. Make. It. Stop.
Even the patented Gilliam baroque of medieval quests and misanthropic heroes fails him in Brothers Grimm, whose set pieces have the conceptually hollow but physically overstuffed, manufactured look of a soundstage. In the fairy tale scenes, characters wander through something like a Wizard of Oz putt-putt golf course. Gillian just can't help himself, conceptualizing even the engorged sound of a character eating a blood pudding as his oppressive effort to squeeze a drop of comedy or gross-out from every parched surface runs amok.
The Brothers Grimm feels like an endurance test where you ride it out hoping Gilliam gets it all out of his system.
In the end, few fairy tales are as frightening as a movie in which so much money is spent to so little effect.
Gilliam probably could have learned a thing or two from the Grimms.
There's a moral here. Something about not wandering into the woods without leaving a trail of coherence to lead yourself out.
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