Double double toil and trouble
Terry Gilliam's The Brother's Grimm received poor notices from Manohla Dargis and Roger Ebert. The common complaint: the film's tone varies wildly, from lowbrow slapstick to fast-paced action to (occasionally) delicate fairy-tale horror, that the actors playing brothers (Matt Damon as Will, Heath Ledger as Jacob) have no idea whether they are heroes or buffoons. Which makes you wonder if critics remember Gilliam's work-- his pictures have always been a mess with one thing following another, chaotically. If you don't like what's happening onscreen, just wait--in a few minutes will be Something Completely Different.
If anything, Grimm is less of a mess than some of Gilliam's previous works (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen anyone?). Gilliam reportedly rewrote Ehren Kruger's script but judging from the writer's output (The Skeleton Key, the Ringu remake) the latter's much too concerned with niceties like coherence and logic-- more concerned than Gilliam anyway. Then there's interference from the Weinstein brothers, who fired Gilliam's choice of cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (camera operator of, among others, Dario Argento, Roman Polanski and Bernardo Bertolucci, and cinematographer of a few of Gilliam's own) in favor of Newton Thomas Sigel (who did the visually flat X-Men movies), and turned down Samantha Morton for female lead.
The result is like Gilliam's The Fisher King: a more commercial, more accessible work but with generous dollops of the director's vertiginous sensibility. Fearsome phantoms and terrifying supernatural events turn out to be tricks and special effects (a comment on Gilliam's own tendency to make fabulist imagery?); a feared villager turns out to be a beautiful woman; a man falling to his death turns out to be a test dummy. You can't trust the forest surrounding a tall, entranceless tower but you can a toad (you just have to lick it), and there's a quick scene here of a kitten that-- well, cat lovers be warned, is all I can say (laughed my head off, myself). Perhaps the most significant change in this compared to Gilliam's earlier work is the extensive use of CGI-- with Brothers Grimm he goes into digital effects in a big way, but not perhaps the usual way; he avoids the more common clichés (impossible zoom shots, roller coaster-style POV shots), keeps his imagery dark (the better to hide the effects), gives the various digitized transformations a more substantial, textured, altogether different look and feel (there's a morph from man to beast here that's startling in its ferocity). If you have to go CGI-- and Gilliam was one of the last significant holdouts-- I suppose this is the way to go (though I do still miss the fantabulousness effects of Baron Munchausen).
The heart of the film lies in an event that happened years before: Jacob as an innocent child is sent off with the starving family's last remaining asset-- a milking cow-- to sell it and bring back the money from the sale; instead, Jacob trades that money for a handful of magic beans, which Will angrily knocks from his hand. The brothers grow up to become a pair of confidence men, 'the famous Brothers Grimm' as Will puts it-- they manufacture ghosts and goblins that they inflict on small villages, who in turn pay them for a quick exorcism. Outgoing Will is the staunch publicist, agent, negotiator of fees, not to mention a cynic and playboy; bespectacled Jacob provides the knowhow that makes the phantoms-- and elaborate techniques used in fighting them-- convincing. He's also the group's dreaming soul, hoping deep down in his heart that the enchantment represented by the beans he so guilelessly sold his family's cow for years ago may someday prove real after all.
The wish-- is why they're so dangerous-- comes true: the brothers are arrested for fraud by French officer General Delatombe (Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce at his most bureaucratically bestial) condemned to death (the details of life in 19th century Germany are for a fairy tale unnervingly realistic and grim). The only way they can escape their sentence is to investigate the mysterious disappearances of young girls in the forest of Marsbaden. To ensure good behavior Delatombe assigns Italian adjutant and unofficial torturer Cavaldi (Peter Stormare, acting like an unholy cross between Don Giovanni and Dr. Strangelove) to accompany them.
Not what you'd call a subtle movie but there are unsettling moments: roaches pour out of corpses and tombs; a creature of mud climbs out of a well, wipes away a child's mouth, then his face; a mummified queen with pretzel fingernails is breathtaking when seen in a mirror (Monica Belucci, who makes you think twice about yielding to malevolence and evil). Gilliam crams as many Grimm fairy tales into the picture as possible and the creatures (Pryce and Stormare easily being the most grotesque of the lot) and spells and magical devices pile up willynilly till the whole ungainly thing threatens to topple all over you.
But Gilliam was always best at the brink of disaster (may be the reason why his productions are always troubled), surviving simply by outrunning catastrophe's coming edge. What keeps us running with him are the brothers; as played by Damon and Ledger, Will and Jacob have their separate even conflicting interests but in a crisis depend on each other. It's surprisingly persuasive work from Damon (who always seemed angrily sullen) and Ledger (who always seemed more pretty boy than anything). They're so comfortable with each other they don't feel like playing up their affection for our benefit; it's just there like bedrock, something they can stand on barring a few disagreements (magic beans, career prospects, the odd girl).
Actually, Gilliam's brothers Grimm remind me of other wanderers: skeptical Will a stand-in for Sancho Panza, dreaming Jacob a substitute for Panza's mad master, wandering the earth on horseback and tilting at the odd windmill (only in this case the windmill turns out not to be a windmill, after all). Gilliam failed to realize his Quixote thanks to bad luck (he's in good company-- Orson Welles failed too); this is possibly Gilliam's only chance to evoke however distantly or fleetingly echoes of that lost production.
Americans looking for a good, old-fashioned story were likely disappointed (the U.S. boxoffice is less than spectacular) but Filipinos, who are never all that far from the dark sources of their imagination (we still dabble in astrology, religion, local folklore) might be more responsive to what Gilliam, who depends on dark imagination, is trying to express. Is it worth the price of a ticket? Trust the toad.
First published in Businessworld 9/9/05