Fairy Tales and Freakery.
Terry Gilliam and I have never really gotten along. I find his comedy too broad, his metaphors too obvious, and his pacing too panicked and frantic, like the last few seconds of a homemade sex tape after the condom breaks. He, in turn, finds me crude, endlessly repetitive, and rigidly formal in my deliberate soullessness, like an engineer running trains to Buchenwald. I don’t think he’s met a wide-angle lens he hasn’t liked, and he’s been known to comment that I go through similes like a junkie collapsing veins. Nevertheless, we’ve carried on with both our lives with minimal animosity, giving grudging respect when it is due. In his case, congratulations must be bestowed for 12 Monkeys, which is in my opinion the best science fiction film ever made, and I will admit that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a childhood favorite, with the sad pathos of the lead character penetrating even my young and as yet untwisted mind as something generally unheard of in children’s films. However, I will never forgive Time Bandits for its reliance on midgets, which contributed in no small part to the little freaks being accepted in modern society and given the right to vote despite the evidence that they are not in fact people but rather descendants of ancient Scandinavian trolls. Brazil is almost hysterical in its hallucinogenic reinterpretation of Orwellian dystopia, a problem which is tripled in intensity on the director’s cut, and I’m entirely too violently conservative to condone the drug-fueled excess of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The problem with Gilliam, aside from the fact that he would very much like to be Tim Burton but has yet to discover the right combination of peyote buttons and Vincent Prince films necessary to affect that alchemical transmutation, is that he makes children’s films, yet is clearly of the opinion that children are crazy little monsters who like nothing more than to swirl around kaleidoscopically and watch things die.
Child, troll, or midget? Either way, it should be gassed.
This inherent flaw is what both makes and breaks The Brothers Grimm. It’s been frequently stated that the film is too scary for children, and too stupid for adults, and this is very true. The film moves entirely too fast to allow any emotional investment in the characters, running at a speed that would outrace a condensed TV edit of The Goonies, especially in its miserable first act, which is almost bad enough to sink the film. Things slow down slightly afterwards, and get progressively more interesting by incorporating the darker elements of traditional fairy tales and mixing them all together, coming off as if Cradle of Filth wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t helped but be drawn in by these genuinely terrifying moments, like when a spider-possessed horse eats a child or the princess buried alive and rotting from plague, but then one of Gilliam’s exaggerated Python-esque performances would smack me in the face with a buffoonish slapstick routine or a terrible accent. Chief among these offenders is Peter Stormare, a fine Swedish actor who for some reason is cast as an Italian torturer, a sin against dialect and suspension of disbelief almost as great as the inclusion of Christopher Lambert as a Scot in Highlander. Stormare sputters and staggers through his performance like a sedated ballerina, though he is almost topped by Gilliam favorite Jonathan Pryce as a French general who speaks like the “cherchez-la vache” guys in The Holy Grail.
Thankfully, those terrible performances are offset somewhat by the film’s leads, particularly Matt Damon, who has always had a pleasant screen presence unless he’s being poisoned by a close proximity to Ben Affleck, the Kryptonite of talent. Damon plays Will Grimm, one of the titular brothers, who travels from town to town faking supernatural phenomenon and then charging the villagers to banish the ‘demons’, kind of like Scooby Doo if Shaggy was a grifter. His brother is played by Heath Ledger, who I thought was a master of dialect after seeing him blend completely into his performance as the slurry Skip Engbom in Lords of Dogtown. However, it has now become apparent that Leger has drunk himself into both incomprehensibility and patchy facial hair. The brothers are joined by Lena Headey, who plays town outcast Angelika as a kind of rough approximation of Keira Knightley. Damon is funny, Angelika is suitably mysterious, and Leger is unintelligible, but there is an element of fun to their performances that’s hard to resist. Which, I suppose, is a good enough description of the film.