Wil and Jake Grimm travel the German countryside, circa 1812, banishing evil spirits from the rural villages, happily, for a fee. The Grimm Brothers are, in fact, con men, banishing the spirits they have created with smoke, mirrors and the aide of their two henchmen. Wil (Matt Damon, "The Bourne Supremacy", "Good Will Hunting") is the businessman, negotiating their fees with the local mayors and Jake (Heath Ledger, "Lords of Dogtown", "A Knight's Tale") is the romantic, recording every fable they hear. Soon, a French General (Jonathan Pryce) and his Italian aide (Peter Stormare) arrest the Grimm brothers. Napoleon has invaded Germany and controls everything. The General wants the Brothers Grimm to rid the town of Mar Baden of an evil spirit suspected of taking the town's young girls. If they succeed, they might be spared death.
If there is anything Gilliam can do well, it is production design. For each film, he creates elaborate, beautiful and haunting designs transporting us to these places. He clearly devotes a large part of the filmmaking process to this part of his films. If "Brazil" and "Baron Munchausen" looked like they were created on sets, there would be no reason to remember them today. Gilliam's designs are massive and all encompassing, taking us along for the journey through these fantasies.
Gilliam and Tim Burton are very similar filmmakers; each delights in creating the physical aspect of their fantastical worlds, each is clearly drawn to stories that are off center and unusual, and each brings an artists eye to the creation of these worlds. Each has also had varied success with the actors in their films and has a love affair with Johnny Depp, casting him in many of their respective films.
I am a big fan of each director, but I am also maddened by both. They have each created some of the most memorable film experiences and also some dreadful, horrible wastes of time. Gilliam and Burton have difficulty dealing with the human element in their films. All of the production design in the world can't make up for wooden or hammy performances. Remember the story from Jonathan Pryce? This story is indicative of the problem with Gilliam's films. His production design drowns out any hope for subtle, lifelike performances, so Gilliam instructs his actors to act broad. As the production design becomes more outlandish, the actors feel it necessary to compete. The performances become more and more broad, louder and louder, and less and less human. This cycle that seems as though it will never end in Gilliam's films.
Recently, a documentary was made about Gilliam's failed attempts to make a film based on the story of Don Quixote. The documentary, "Lost in La Mancha", detailed the constant funding problems the production had. Johnny Depp was cast as Sancho to Jean Rochefort's Quixote. This never completed film is especially intriguing because of the story. There doesn't seem to be a lot of opportunity for outlandish production design. Maybe a bit here and there, but the story would primarily have taken the two leads to barren landscapes in the Spanish countryside. Because of this, we might have had the opportunity to see Gilliam lead his performers to greatness. But it will never be. The closest we will ever see are the snippets included in the documentary.
In "Grimm", Damon and Ledger are virtually always running around, shouting, arguing, screaming at each other, fighting with each other. But boy those sets look great. Each actor's performance easily ranks as one of their worst, and in Ledger's case, that's saying a lot. Ledger is an actor in search of a good role. None of his films to date have fulfilled any of the promise they may have had.
Oddly, Jonathan Pryce's performance is very sedate. As the French General, he seems to be playing it almost straight to Peter Stormare's Italian aide. Stormare's character is amusing for the first few moments; his accent is thick and he seems intent on trying to kill anyone and anything they capture. But the character quickly wears thin and seems an odd match to Pryce's French General. Pryce adds a bit of a French accent and raises his eyebrows a few times at the antics of his aide, but that is about the extent of his performance.
Monica Belluci appears in the film as well. This is another case of a beautiful woman who can't act appearing in countless films simply because of her looks. Her most successful American films were the second and third "Matrix" films, perhaps because she simply had to stand around and look exotic.
The screenplay by Ehren Kruger ("The Skeleton Key", "The Ring") is interesting. Kruger works very hard to insert as many fairy tale references as possible. Some of them are clever and amusing, but it occurred to me, about halfway through the film, that it seems unlikely that these two guys would have one adventure, no matter how big, that inspired every single famous fairy tale they later recorded/ created. Seeds of everything from "Jack and the Beanstalk" (no pun intended) to "Rapunzel", "The Gingerbread Man" to "Snow White' make an appearance in some fashion. About halfway through the film, the process becomes a little monotonous and slapdash. References seem thrown in at any available point, whether they have a purpose to the story or not. The "Gingerbread Man" reference seems particularly tacked on.
Kruger crafts the rest of the story well. Refashioning the brothers as con-men who are reluctantly called into duty provides an immediate sense of danger to the story and making the Napoleonic occupation a backdrop are interesting touches, but the main characters get lost. At one point Wil and Jake are fighting each other for the affections of a woman. It isn't really clear what Wil sees in her or what the outcome of this storyline is.
If you can sit through two hours of interesting images, and perhaps tune out the dialogue and story, you might enjoy yourself. Otherwise, "The Brothers Grimm" is a miss, a big miss. Not really worthy of a rental either.