Screens All that glitters is not Gilliam

Studio meddling may have made The Brothers Grimm a lesser film, but it's still a bright spot in Hollywood

If there's a great screening room up in the sky, where giants look down upon the mortals who walk in their footsteps, it's a sure thing that Orson Welles spends a good deal of his time following the career of Terry Gilliam. I can see him now, chuckling sympathetically and saying, "My boy, I know just how you feel."

Heath Ledger, left, and Matt Damon play the Brothers Grimm of lore as a pair of con artists who sell exorcisms to superstitious townfolk. Monica Bellucci, right, is the Mirror Queen.

Gilliam, after all, has inherited Welles' status as the genius Hollywood hates most - a man whose cinematic children have been yanked from him, subjected to cruel cosmetic surgery, and sent to school still bearing Gilliam's surname. That's when they're allowed to come to term; in the famous case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (depicted in the doc Lost in La Mancha), God himself got in Gilliam's way with a string of injuries and catastrophic weather events. It's astounding that the man has the fortitude to continue as a filmmaker, and a miracle when he actually has a movie in theaters, even in bastardized form.

The Brothers Grimm, the product of an unholy marriage between Gilliam and the Weinstein brothers, was subject to all the stumbling blocks one associates with meddlesome studio personalities: The filmmaker's casting ideas were overruled, bits of characterization were rejected as too uncommercial (in this case, star Matt Damon was supposed to wear makeup that would have tempered his boyish good looks), and, of course, the financial backers refused the filmmaker's original edit. If any bit of idiosyncratic vision has made it to the screen, credit is due to Gilliam's tenacity and to the unseen hand of the movie gods.

Monica Bellucci, right, is the Mirror Queen.

The Brothers Grimm is clearly a Terry Gilliam film. It is also clearly a second-tier one, which is not to say it isn't better than the lion's share of the action-comedy-fantasies that might be called its peers. Fans will attribute any shortcomings to studio interference, and until the filmmaker is no longer bound by nondisclosure agreements (will we someday see a Brazil-like DVD set combining his cut, the studio's, and a doc about the differences?), that explanation is as good as any.

Damon and Ledger play a highly fictionalized version of the famous storytelling siblings. If Damon's looks are preserved for movie-poster exploitation, Ledger's are camouflaged by glasses, a scruffy beard, and a skittish attitude; he's the scholar of the two, a true believer in the myths and folktales they use to make a living. (He's the "Jack" who, as a child, squandered the family gold on some "magic beans" that failed to sprout.) With a couple of helpers, the Grimms wander the countryside hoaxing villages with fake plagues and then offering to solve everyone's problems for a price.

The Brothers Grimm

Dir. Terry Gilliam; writ. Ehren Kruger; feat. Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Lena Headey (PG-13)

Before it's quite exploited, this comic setup morphs into something a good deal darker: The brothers are captured by the French soldiers occupying Germany and sent to expose what is assumed to be another team of hoaxers. As viewers learn in scenes violent enough to keep young children at home, this particular haunted forest may be cursed with some honest-to-goodness witchcraft.

Bringing fairy tales back to their dark, scary roots is a great idea, and Gilliam is the one to do it. There are certainly moments where he pulls it off and we actually feel, for instance, the horror Little Red Riding Hood would have experienced. (There's some very icky stuff involving bugs, too.) And the director squeezes a passable number of laughs out of the screenplay as well. Peter Stormare is especially reliable, hamming up his wig-wearing, linguistically challenged villain for all he's worth.

But like the homemade goblins the Grimms begin the film fighting, the movie occasionally feels like something built of chicken wire and held together with a coating of papier-mache. Some post-production elements, such as the bits of unconvincing computer graphics, aren't up to Gilliam's wizard-like standards, and not all of the story's tonal shifts hold up. Compared to most Hollywood product, Grimm is a perfectly enjoyable diversion; for the Gilliam faithful, the good news is that Tideland - which sounds like a much less interfered-with production - is already finished and awaiting distribution.

By John DeFore

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