Artistic inspiration is a wonderful thing, but without discipline it can lead to visual cacophony. That’s certainly the case with “The Brothers Grimm.” Slapstick and grotesquerie make for an unsavory brew in Terry Gilliam’s latest splashy, overproduced fiasco, which turns the two German folk-tale-collecting siblings into a couple of nineteenth-century Ghostbusters and lays a major egg in the process. It’s just as extravagant and flamboyant as the director’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” but even more wrongheaded than that massive misfire.
Ehren Kruger’s slapdash script is set during the Napoleonic occupation of the German territories, early in the second decade of the century when the brothers would have been in their mid-twenties. But Jacob (Heath Ledger) and Wilhelm (Matt Damon) aren’t the budding philologist-folklorists of history: rechristened Jake and Will, they’re traveling con-men who use elaborate ruses to convince the local rustics that they’re bedeviled by supernatural forces and then offer their “exorcism” services at a hefty fee to their victims. All goes reasonably well until the French governor-general Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) compels them and their goofy minions to confront what appears to be an actual ghostly intervention, involving the disappearance of children (some fairy-tale figures, like Little Red Riding Hood and Gretel) from a haunted forest near an apparently cursed village. Under the watchful eye of the general’s second-in-command, a gruesomely cruel and drooling Italian mercenary named Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), the duo enlist the aid of a reluctant local huntress, Angelina (Lena Headey), to take on the challenge, which proves to involve a malevolent ages-old queen (Monica Bullucci) who, as it turns out, requires the virgins’ energy to restore her youth, release her from a spell that keeps her trapped in a high tower, and allow her once again to rule the countryside. Complications escalate as Will and Jake both begin to have feelings for Angelina, causing some sibling rivalry, while the huntress’ supposedly dead father returns in an enchanted state and the governor arrives to handle the potentially troublesome situation once and for all by imposing French dominion over the unruly locality.
This murky mixture of light and shade would be difficult to turn into a satisfying whole under the best of circumstances, but it’s doomed by Gilliam’s unceasing penchant for garishness, black humor and pointlessly frenetic action, all shot and edited with an empty virtuosity that accentuates the weaknesses. The camera careens recklessly over the landscape and through the gloomily elaborate interiors, turning the performers into overwrought, gibbering caricatures. Pryce and Stormare come off especially badly, both sporting atrocious accents and encouraged to adopt flamboyant poses that go way beyond cartoonish. But the miscast Damon and Ledger fare little better. Both seem totally ill-at-ease, but in different ways. Damon’s supposed to be the more stalwart, controlled of the duo, but he’s simply stiff, while Ledger is reduced to doing a variant of the hyper-active shtick that Brad Pitt attempted in Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys,” and coming off very poorly at it. It’s impossible to have any liking for these characters, who seem more gargoyles than human beings, or for Bellucci’s mean-spirited queen, presented as a Disney villainess in live-action form. Headey emerges more sympathetic than anyone else, but that’s not saying much. And while the production team certainly puts itself at the disposal of the director’s typically extravagant imaginings, even in that respect “The Brothers Grimm” is disappointing, ultimately looking more gloomy than grandiose. The lumbering trees in the forest, for instance, simply call to mind the cheesy ones that once populated “H.R. Pufnstuf.” In fact, by the end Gilliam’s whole enterprise resembles nothing more than a bizarre, moody fun-house-mirror version of one of those surrealistic old Krofft Brothers shows.
The 1962 George Pal Cinerama extravaganza “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” might seem terribly sedate and old-fashioned in today’s overheated cinematic environment, but it’s still much to be preferred to another Gilliam exercise in wretched excess, an orgy of big-budget incoherence more likely to cause appalled astonishment than childish delight.