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The Brothers Grimm

When I was a child, I played with childish things. Now that I am a man ...I still play with childish things. But I'm supposedly a lot smarter now. It's sort of the Fanboy Planet credo, and one that Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) should share.

Like many a Terry Gilliam protagonist, Jacob hopes for magic, though as a child that hope leads to tragedy. Years later near the end of the 18th Century, he and his brother Wilhelm (Matt Damon) have turned their knowledge of magic and folklore into just another way to fleece the yokels. But in one bad night in the village of Marienbad, they will discover that Jacob's hopes are a nightmarish reality.

This should have been a cakewalk for Gilliam, directing from a script by Ehren Kruger. All the elements of Gilliam's most delirious work are here: dreamer, folklore and tall tales and a towering evil that only good hearts can try to overcome. Set loose in an ethereal village where he can run through any fairy tale he wants, Gilliam instead chooses to walk.

Unfortunately, it's more of a tired amble. Not even the ominous moving trees of Marienbad Forest can rouse him.

Maybe the battle for La Mancha took it all out of him, and indeed The Brothers Grimm arrives with stories of even more battles to get made. High-powered actors danced in and out of roles, which would definitely have changed the balance of things. Gilliam himself allegedly halted production for five months in order to recharge his batteries and direct the smaller film Tideland.

Then the Brothers Weinstein stepped in to save this production when MGM could fight no more, and they are not exactly the most hands-off of producers. When matched with a director like Kevin Smith who could use a little guidance, it works. But Gilliam needs freedom.

It still has its moments, including two powerful leads in Damon and Ledger. In nice star turns, they play against their expected roles. Ledger keeps Jacob's head always brushing against the clouds, even when he knows he must face reality. As Will, Damon lets loose a roguishness that his off-screen life might indicate, but rarely gets used on film.

But they're also inconsistently written characters. Will dominates his bookish brother, and both make that status relationship clear. Then for one early scene, Jacob has an uncharacteristic good time, a dynamic that never appears again but just needed to be there for the purpose of the plot of the scene. It doesn't fit, and Ledger never even hints at it again, instead vesting Jacob with a wounded dignity.

Most of the actors try to keep their performances realistically grounded. Even Jonathan Pryce resists hamminess as the Napoleon-esque General Delatombe. Then Peter Stormare strikes a cartoonish and really out of place figure as an Italian sadist named Cavaldi. With that exception, the realism would have worked if Gilliam had let the fantastic be fantastic.

Normally he would. Production Designer Guy Dyas tries to ape the look of earlier Gilliam films, but somehow it doesn't have that spontaneous appearance. It could be the CGI age, which keeps rudely intruding into Gilliam's visuals. It's hard to get enthralled by even the Grimms' trickery when you know it's not even being done live. The whole film gives the vague feeling that Gilliam is following the blueprint of someone else's creativity, and Kruger may be a clever writer, but he never seems actually all that creative.

A few flashes of the Gilliam touch brighten the film. In context slapstick moments occur, and even though it's computer generated, Gilliam's take on the Gingerbread Man is horrifically and terrifically his own. Actually, the CGI does mesh with Gilliam's vision in the film's climactic battle with the Evil Queen (Monica Bellucci).

So it makes for a diverting story, and a pleasant enough game of spotting homages to different fairy tales. But compared to the lunacy of Time Bandits, Brazil and even 12 Monkeys, this feels restrained, as if Gilliam gave up being personal and tried to please the crowd.

Terry, please say it ain't so. We love the dreamer of dreams, not the maker of popcorn.


Derek McCaw

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