Director Terry Gilliam is inarguably one of the top fantasists working in film today. His best work – Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Fisher King (1991) and 12 Monkeys (1995)– display an imagination informed by classic European folklore as it is warped by a very skewed and dark comic sensibility. So it’s frustrating that a film that should play so strongly to Gilliam’s strengths, as the screenplay for The Brothers Grimm seems to, comes off feeling rather conventional and lacking that certain demeted Gilliam spark.
Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are traveling con-artists, ridding villages of “supernatural” infestations of their own manufacture. At the rather strong-armed request of a French general (Jonathan Pryce), the brothers travel to a desolate village to investigate the strange disappearances of the villagers’ daughters in the foreboding woods nearby. But is what they encounter a hoax like the type they themselves perpetuate or is it a genuine magical curse?
The story here encompasses themes that Gilliam has explored before, specifically the rise of the Age of Reason – as personified by Pryce’s French general, a similar role to one he essayed in Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988) – versus the decline of magic and imagination. This is further mirrored in the film’s titular brothers, where Will is the skeptic while Jacob desperately wants to believe in the fantastic stories he has been collecting that serve as the basis for their cons.
Unfortunately, the film comes across as a bit of a “Terry Gilliam Greatest Hits” package, but without some of the crazed spark that characterizes his other films. It is as if Gilliam is deliberately playing it safe here. That’s understandable, though, as his last film, The Men Who Killed Don Quiote fell apart in 2000, after only a week of principal photography. (The film’s dissolution is heartbreakingly chronicled in the documentary Lost In La Mancha). With Gilliam’s return to the director’s chair after 4 years, Brothers Grimm feels almost timid, as if Gilliam is reticent to full invest himself creatively into another project, lest it too collapse. Still, there are moments were Gilliam seems to find his sea legs and his demented sense of humor and unique imagination shine through.