As I was watching The Brothers Grimm, I developed a theory that maybe I don't like Terry Gilliam movies as much as I think I do. Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and now The Brothers Grimm are all visually wonderful movies that I feel like I should love and want to watch over and over again, but I don't.
What lets all the air out of that theory is the existence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, and Twelve Monkeys; all movies that I do love and want to watch over and over again.
So it's not inherently Gilliam that I'm not connecting with, but I'm having a hard time deciding what it is about The Brothers Grimm that leaves me so unaffected. It's a vast improvement over the similarly themed Van Helsing, but that's not a very big compliment. Van Helsing made me cringe; Grimm just makes me shrug.
It's not Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. Those guys are both excellent actors and I'll watch pretty much anything that either one of them does. Ledger is especially good here in a role that's as much a surprise for him as Brad Pitt's was in Twelve Monkeys.
It's certainly not Monica Bellucci as the wicked Queen that bothered me. Yowza. I actually sorta found myself rooting for her a couple of times out of sheer enchantment.
It's not even the story itself that I dislike. The concept is a pretty good one: the Grimm brothers are a pair of travelling con men who prey on village superstitions in order to make money. They come into a town that's rumored to cursed by this ghost or that witch; perform an impressive, but fake exorcism; then scoot before anyone's the wiser. Wilhelm (Matt Damon) is completely pragmatic about their job and doesn't believe that spirits actually exist. Jacob (Heath Ledger), on the other hand, desperately wants to believe that he's part of a larger story involving the supernatural. That difference in worldview puts them in conflict with each other (though the movie unfortunately waits longer than it should to reveal it), especially since Jacob's "naivety" once cost them the life of their sister.
I put "naivety" in quotes, because of course Jacob's not naïve. When the brothers are captured by Napolean's invasion army and forced to put a stop to a series of kidnappings in a nearby village, they soon realize that something very spooky and real is going on. There's also a subplot in which the brothers find themselves rivals for the affection of one of the village girls (Lena Headey).
There's enough going on and enough dramatic conflict that The Brothers Grimm could've been a solid movie. None of the conflict is particularly inspired, but the right dialogue could've made it interesting. Unfortunately, that never happens and we get an X-Files-derived, but otherwise generic, romantic comedy. Although -- it can't be said too often -- a gorgeous one.
Even the fairy tale elements -- things that happen in the village that will supposedly one day inspire the brothers' stories -- fail to live up to the potential of the idea. One of the kidnapping victims happens to wear a little, red, riding cloak. Another, named Greta, gets lost in the woods with her brother Hans, in spite of having left a trail of bread crumbs. Another girl is sucked into a mud-creature of some kind, which then flattens itself and inexplicably refers to itself as a "gingerbread man." An enchanted woodsman turns -- again, without explanation -- into a wolf. It all seems very forced, as if the idea to have the brothers' tales be inspired by their adventure in the village was a late suggestion. The exceptions to that are the Queen, who has elements of Snow White and Rapunzel that make sense in her story, and a clever bit that humorously gives a possible real-world explanation for the Frog Prince story.
One last gripe I have is about the character of Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), an Italian torturer who's sent along to keep an eye on the brothers and make sure that they fulfill their obligation to Napolean's army. His accent is mostly indecipherable and he's sadistic to the point of ridiculousness, right up until the point where the plot requires him to suddenly change his personality so that he wants to help the brothers rather than menace them.
Still, the movie looks great and any imagination lacking in the script has been poured ten-fold into the visuals. Gilliam's created an enchanted place that's worthy of fairy tales. It's just maddeningly unfortunate that the story told there isn't worthy of the setting.