*The Brothers Grimm
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Over a career spanning a quarter-century, Terry Gilliam, director of The Brothers Grimm, has become almost as legendary for movies that never, or almost never, were seen as for those that were. In 1985, it took a full-page ad in trade magazines and enthusiastic support from critics' groups for Universal Pictures finally to release his bleak Brazil. Budget battles nearly resulted in his firing from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
An entire documentary -- last year's Lost in La Mancha -- was devoted to Gilliam's inability to complete The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Rarely has a filmmaker collided so conspicuously with the realities of the movie business.
The high concept in the Grimm script by Ehren Kruger looks intriguing enough on its own. Though they later will be known for collecting fairy tales, Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) also are early 19th-century con artists.
Making use of their knowledge of folklore, the siblings roam the countryside of French-occupied Germany creating smoke-and-mirrors shows of dispatching supernatural beasts -- who are, in fact, actors in costumes -- and earning a tidy living for their faux ghostbusting.
But the local French commandant (Jonathan Pryce), wise to their scheme, compels them to assist in quelling a disturbance in the region of Marbaden. Young girls are disappearing, and the Grimms are to find the presumably flesh-and-blood kidnapper -- although the nearby forest seems to have some unique properties.
Gilliam's work most decidedly is a particular taste, and while The Brothers Grimm certainly leans toward the more conventional side displayed in The Fisher King, it still may not be the kind of film to convert non-believers.
Sets and costumes tend toward the dark and grungy. Supporting characters often are grotesque. And there are twisted bursts of visual invention. With whatever Gilliam sees in his head at night, be thankful you don't live there.
Yet there's also plenty that's purely entertaining about The Brothers Grimm, most notably the brothers themselves. Damon continues to irritate the hell out of people who think it's unfair that a guy this pretty also should be this talented and versatile. His willingness to play a shrieking coward undercuts any perceived movie-star aura.
Heath Ledger, meanwhile, turns in a companion piece to his stoner surf guru character from The Lords of Dogtown; as the more bookish Jacob, he's another enjoyably twitchy surge of eccentricity. The two make a great screen pair, anchoring a narrative that swings from creepy suspense to slapstick and back again.
The centerpiece of that narrative, however, is a subject that has fascinated Gilliam for the entirety of his filmmaking life: imagination as a source of power. Gilliam is goofing with tropes like magic mirrors, wicked witches and sleeping beauties that were created to keep young people in line, but magic and fantasy in The Brothers Grimm become means of rebellion against the oppressive hand of a controlling authority. No wonder the guy chafes when wrangled by studio suits.
On a certain level, The Brothers Grimm feels like a minor work in the Gilliam oeuvre, a movie that fumbles with the kind of happy ending the director includes only while holding his nose. But it's still a thrill to watch him craft dreamscapes so distinctly his own.
-- Scott Renshaw