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A Review of The Brothers Grimm

by "Kirkinson"

This film is proof that Gilliam just can't please his critics. Early reviews have yielded all the usual accusations met with every film he has made: over-indulgent, excessive, visually overbearing at the expense of the story he has supposedly ignored. Yet I feel I've just watched the most impersonal, most decidedly unindulgent film Gilliam has ever made. Here he has conceded to the standard Hollywood story structure more than in anything else he has ever done, with very little attention given to his usual whims and fancies (except where they have an impact on the narrative).

Matt Damon (right) in The Brothers Grimm
Perhaps what is perplexing his harshest critics is how well he managed to pull it off. I'm more inclined to believe they haven't actually watched the movie. But in any case, this is a very good, well-made and extremely enjoyable film. And even if it ends up being my least favorite Gilliam, the fact that "least favorite" is the worst adjective I'm willing to use should tell you something. It's a curious thing; it feels like scaled back, watered down Gilliam, yet Gilliam's mind is so rich with imaginative ideas that even in this scaled back state there's clearly no one else who could have possibly made it.

I said it's not excessive, but it is extraordinarily detailed. Every last shot in the film is packed with information, thought through with such attention to the minutest spec that no matter where you happen to be looking on the screen, you're bound to see something that in any other film would be worth a shot of its own. If there's a problem with the visuals, perhaps they look a little too slick and clean. Gilliam films tend to look dirtier, messier, which adds an original edge to their beauty. Here I wonder if the forced presence of DP Tom Sigel has anything to do with it; although the most recent articles have had Bob Weinstein saying Nicola Pecorini (who worked on the film for the first couple of weeks) was making his images too dark, earlier reports were that Weinstein didn't feel the look Pecorini was going for was appropriate to a Hollywood fantasy of this scale. Sigel seems to have been brought in more for his experience on X-Men than Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Still, I've already used up too much space for this complaint; all in all, the visuals still have the unmistakable stamp of Gilliam on them, which means the film looks great.

Acting is mostly strong. Matt Damon has been hit pretty hard in the negative reviews (and even in a couple of the positive ones) but I don't think he deserves it at all. He is playing a stiff and unappealing person, and if his detractors say he is stiff and unappealing, he has clearly done his job well. Jonathan Pryce is of course a Gilliam veteran, and does as great a job as you would expect (and his French accent is so wonderfully cheesy that it rivals John Malkovich in Bean). Peter Stormare goes all out and creates possibly his most insane character ever. He's the one aspect of Gilliam's usual "excess" (in quotes because I feel it's one of his virtues) in the film, a classic character in the director's oeuvre. Stormare and Gilliam never should have been allowed in the same room; I hope they work together again!

Peter Stormare as Italian Cavaldi
Delightfully, the actor I was most worried about ended up delivering my favorite performance. Many are going to find Heath Ledger's mannerisms over-the-top and out of context, but I thought he was actually sort of brilliant. It's something like Benicio del Toro's speech slurring in The Usual Suspects: you'd never expect something so strange to be so endearing, and you can't really explain why it is. It's as if he's constantly afraid of being hit by his brother so he feels he has to move his arms around his head all the time to protect himself. It looks so weird, but it works, maybe because it's child-like and Ledger's character still has a wide-eyed, child-like worldview. I think he tapped in perfectly to what a Gilliam film is all about.

The weak link in the cast is Lena Headey. She's not terrible by any means, but she makes the same mistake as Kim Griest in Brazil: she doesn't seem to realize she's in a Terry Gilliam movie. This is the same performance she would give in a Jerry Bruckheimer production, a standard action girl/love interest who just stays in the periphery making no attempt to give herself anything interesting to do. As per usual in a Gilliam film, everyone else in the cast seems to be trying to out-act each other. Headey's the only one not playing the game, poor girl, and therefore all she can do is forfeit.

Then there are the weak links in the rest of the film. Most egregious is the awful scene right before the third act where the three leads have a big argument that consists of all the characters proclaiming each other's very obvious internal conflicts just in case the audience is too slow to pick up on them without expository dialogue. This old staple of Hollywood storytelling is something Gilliam has always managed to avoid, and it's distressing to see it turn up now. The story's eventual resolution also doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, and not because of any Munchausen-esque ambiguity; an explanation is attempted, but it's a poorly explained explanation.

The quality of the special effects varies widely. Some effects are absolutely perfect, others not so much. The flying wolf, which always looked kind of fake in the stills, looks perfectly believable when it's in motion. Strangely, things that seem like they would be less complicated actually look the worst. The ubiquitous bugs look extremely fake, and a CG shawl blowing through the wind (why couldn't this have been done with a real shawl?) is probably the worst effect in the entire movie. Other effects, like the Mud Mimic, I'm torn on. The Queen and all her transformations are superbly handled. Ironically enough, I think the most realistic-looking effect in the film was the one that was supposed to look fake: the Mill Witch engineered by the Grimms themselves.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I can't shake the feeling that it represents a lot of missed opportunities. Far from being meandering, as some critics have suggested, I found it not nearly meandering enough. There was never a point in the film where I didn't know what was going to happen next. Part of what made Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so wonderful was the way they threw traditional plot structure into the wind. In those films, every scene yielded an unexpected surprise more wondrous than the last. In Grimm, some of the wonder remains because Gilliam knows how to do it in his sleep, but there are few surprises--it started feeling as though he really did do it in his sleep.

But I'm starting to sound more disappointed than I really am. I still had a great time, and I had long ago prepared myself for Gilliam's most commercial film. I know with Tideland coming Gilliam will soon be back in full force. Meanwhile, I hope Brothers Grimm performs strongly enough to accomplish what the director wanted it to accomplish. That is, I hope it opens a few doors for his other projects. It's a shame there was so little money left to advertise the film; the audience I saw it with, all part of that coveted 17 to 25 age bracket, really seemed to be loving it, laughing in all the right places and jumping in their seats at others. With the right sort of public awareness, I think this film could have done Pirates of the Caribbean-type business. Hopefully it still can; Gilliam needs all the support he can get.
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