Brothers Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger) Grimm are two traveling 19th century con men, roaming the German countryside claiming wild abilities to defeat demons and witches of all sorts. When the French government (led by Jonathan Pryce), captures the brothers, they send them to a desolate village where the children are mysteriously disappearing at a rapid rate. In way over their heads, the siblings attempt to fake their way around the situation, but when it is revealed an evil queen (Monica Bellucci, not in the film nearly enough) is at the heart of the problem, the brothers need more than their wits to survive.
"The Brothers Grimm" (IMDb listing) marks Terry Gilliam's first film in seven years to hit the big screen. The former Monty Python visual wizard has always believed that more is more, and "Grimm" plays right into his arms. A noisy, tonally berserk fantasy horror film, "Grimm" quickly reminds the viewer why it's so hard for Gilliam to find funding for his visions these days.
I don't mean that as a slam on Gilliam -- any man who could make something as poignant and delightful as "The Fisher King" is a friend of mine. "Grimm" just indulges the director in the most unfortunate ways. Built upon the themes of fairy tales and a fictional look at the birth of the Grimms' writing career, the picture tries to style itself a comic fantasy, with heavy dark undertones of witchcraft and danger. Right from the outset, Gilliam is encouraging his actors to silly it up in an effort to stave off the rowdy nature of the visuals and the story, and in the hands of Damon and Ledger, the jokes wilt right away. While both are talented actors, they can't breathe under the weight of Gilliam's frantic camerawork and special effects. This leaves all the attention on the artifice of "Grimm."
This being Gilliam, a man known for his meticulous production designs, "Grimm" is an eye-popping visual extravaganza encrusted in the director's favorite substance: mud. From the sinking roads to the actors' faces, everything is covered with mud. Mud even plays a character in the film, in a scene where a sludge monster rises from a well, steals a little girl's face, and chases her around. Shot on mammoth soundstages, Gilliam does his best to liven up the space with period ornaments, a large assortment of bugs and creepy-crawlies, and distorted camera lenses. Yet the film feels claustrophobic, and with the lion's share of the action taking place at the Queen's foreboding tower, the epic scope that Gilliam is trying to achieve is constrained by the single locale. "Grimm" is another visual exercise for Gilliam, along the lines of "Time Bandits" or "Brazil," but it lacks the exhilaration and ingenuity of those earlier pictures. It feels like the filmmaker is spinning his wheels with this misguided attempt at fantasy, fumbling to relight the fire that once propelled his vision so effortlessly.
If Gilliam can be counted on for optical lavishness, he can also be counted on for chaos. "Grimm" maintains the Gilliam streak of motion pictures that just don't know when to quit. Because "Grimm" is such a high-maintenance production, Gilliam overcompensates in the action department, staging scene after scene of screaming terror and confusion. It adds up quickly, and grows tiresome immediately. Panic isn't a sword Gilliam has ever wielded with ease, and he frequently infuses "Grimm" with a madcap, berserk spirit that the screenplay isn't prepared to support. If "Grimm" were a marathon runner, it would be heaving at the side of the road within the first mile. I doubt any potential audience members have the kind of stamina Gilliam is looking for to enjoy this wild, wacky look at the birth of fairy tales.
Filmfodder Grade: C-