It's been seven years since the last Gilliam film (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), although he did try his best to make another one during that stretch (the failure of his Don Quixote film was chronicled in Lost in La Mancha). In response to the Quixote disaster, Gilliam set out to make his biggest movie yet with the backing of two studios, MGM and Dimension Films (home of the dreaded Weinstein brothers, Bob and Harvey). Of course, MGM had some problems and left the production in the hands of Bob and Harvey, with Gilliam at the mercy of the notorious, meddling pair.
It appears the film might've suffered from this combo.
The Brothers Grimm, a fictional take on the origin of those famous fairy tales, aspires to be another classic Gilliam fantasy film to go along with Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and the sadly underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam's trademark visual style is often in full blast, and the movie is peppered with great moments of eccentric comedy.
It also feels disjointed and incomplete at times. The troubled project had its release date postponed for a year, and saw Gilliam walk away at one point to do another movie.
The film stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as Will and Jake Grimm, the famed fairy tale authors, although it is not a biopic. It is a Ghostbusters-like fantasy, with the Grimm brothers as con artists making European townsfolk believe they are capable of defeating haunting spirits. When the evil Delatombe (a funny Jonathan Pryce) forces them to work for him, the Grimms must investigate the secret of some missing children near allegedly enchanted woods.
The setup provides for all sorts of visual splendor, and Gilliam manages some magical sequences. Unfortunately, the big budget gives Gilliam his first opportunity to mess around with CGI, and the results are mixed at times. A scene where the Gingerbread Man makes an evil appearance stands as one of the worst looking effects Gilliam has ever put to screen.
Damon and Ledger do make much of the film enjoyable, especially in the moments where the Grimms come off as hapless cowards (Damon does a nice job of screaming like a pansy). The script, by Ehren Kruger, is scattershot, often stranding the leads in a story that never really takes full shape. But Damon and Ledger do have good chemistry, selling themselves as brothers and garnering enough sympathy for their plights.
Peter Stormare, sporting a tedious Italian accent, wears out his welcome fast as Delatombe's right-hand man. Lena Headey is lifeless as the female lead, a fur trapper who lost members of her family to the enchanted forest (Gilliam wanted Samantha Morton, but the Weinsteins nixed those plans). Monica Belluci is reduced to nothing more than a beautiful special effect as a murderous queen seeking the blood of children to replenish her youth.
Could this have been a better film without studio meddling? Hard to say. Morton is a terrific actress, and Gilliam was right to seek her out. Headey has plenty of bland screen time, so many movie minutes could've had Morton's spark. The studio supposedly forced some major cuts, which could account for the film's discombobulated feel at times. Still, given Kruger's script record (The Skeleton Key, Scream 3), the project had a strike against it with him on board.
With all of its problems, The Brothers Grimm is still a decent enough movie, a testament to Gilliam's touch. The subject and script could've been total trash in a lesser director's hands, but Gilliam breathes life into enough moments to make it worthwhile.
Of course, simply worthwhile amounts to mild disappointment when it comes to a master like Gilliam. His talents could've been put to better use elsewhere. Hopefully, his next project (Tideland) will amount to classic cinema, rather than a mildly interesting diversion.