The Brothers Grimm directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Ehren Kruger, with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. A Sony release. 118 minutes. Opens Friday (August 26). For venues and times, see Movies, page 98. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The Brothers Grimm is Terry Gilliam's 8 1/2.
Federico Fellini's 1963 film featured his charismatic alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni, who embarked on a full-out wallow through Fellini's obsessions and eccentricities, culminating in the resolution of various personal paradoxes and the transcendence of his artistic alienation. Self-indulgent to the point of gluttony, it's also hugely satisfying.
As for Gilliam, for 20-odd years, from Brazil through Twelve Monkeys to Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, he has explored the border between stodgy reality and thrilling fantasy, wrestling to reconcile the two using big stars, galloping budgets and an uncompromisingly baroque sensibility. The Brothers Grimm has all that and transcendence, too.
Never mind that he didn't write the screenplay; Ehren Kruger's story out-Gilliams Gilliam, with three (count 'em) Quixote figures, a tough, solitary female love interest, an arrogant French general, a ramshackle rural post-medieval setting and what may be his most nuanced and fully realized battle yet between the conflicting forces of rationalism and myth.
And Gilliam gets two alter egos to play with. Anyone who's seen Lost In La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary about Gilliam at work, will recognize him in both the feckless dreamer Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger), who documents the peasants' terrors and invents far-fetched remedies for them, and the hustling showman Will (Matt Damon), who takes an almost indecent pleasure in using over-the-top special effects to extract funding from potentates in exchange for schemes that may or may not work.
For the purposes of the film, the brothers are hucksters travelling from town to soggy Black Forest town offering to exorcise the local bogeymen with smoke and mirrors. The film's slow to start, and for a longish while it looks like nothing more than an excuse to dress actors up in obsessively detailed costumes and have them slide around in the mud.
Things pick up when the invading French enlist the brothers to seek out the goblin that's been stealing children in a border town. On pain of death they acquiesce, eventually teaming up with a taciturn woodswoman and a supercilious Italian (duke?) with a penchant for elaborate torture devices.
It isn't until they start digging around in the forest and find a tower that may or may not be magical that the story really gets underway. Tensions build - between the rational French and the superstitious Germans, between credulous Jacob and hardheaded Will, between the mossy artifacts of the Middle Ages and the sharp tools of the Enlightenment. Through it all are peppered dark, clever fairy-tale references: little Hans and Greta go off to the woods to seek their missing sister; a girl in a red cape is, in passing, menaced by a wolf; and there's possibly the most disturbing reference to the Gingerbread Man yet realized on film.
It's not a perfect movie. All the silly anachronisms, gratuitous elaborations and cavalier pacing that are trademarks of Gilliam's style are here in full force. But it's an entrancing one, and the climax feels like the apotheosis of every statement on the relative merits of fantasy and reality he's made since Brazil.
Self-indulgent? You bet. And massively satisfying.