Karen Wonders What the Hell is Wrong with Critics--The Brothers Grimm Was Just Fine!

by Karen Gsteiger

(It's not my intention to spoil overmuch, but who knows where the night will take us?)

Okay, so my ability to be objective on this subject is extremely limited.

My personal Python conversion moment came when I was 13. I was not looking my best; I was unpopular; the few friendships I did have were rocky; the home life was not spectacular during that particular period of time; I endured a long and mysterious illness that left me extremely fatigued and my joints sore (originally diagnosed as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, I now wonder whether fibromyalgia was actually rearing its ugly head at an early age); I also battled a debilitating depression that lasted more than a year--the bleakest place I have ever been; suicide looked like a viable option. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. My life was about ten kinds of hell.

Then I started watching a lot of old Flying Circus episodes, and I was transfigured. Well, I still didn't look my best, and I was still unpopular and in despair. But everything in life--even the most painful things--seemed a lot more absurd and a lot funnier. I fell madly in love with all six Pythons, a love that endures unabated to this day, and I have turned to their anarchic and gleefully cynical philosophies during the best and worst times of my life and all the times in between. I hope I go down in my final moments always looking on the bright side of life.

My admiration of Terry Gilliam began with Python, but I do not just think of him as an animator or the guy in the suit of armor carrying a rubber chicken. He is also my favorite film director of all time. I also discovered The Adventures of Baron Munchausen during that troubled 13th year, and I would trudge through lake-effect snow to the nearest video store so that I could watch it again and again. It was my favorite and most potent escape. The breathtaking imagery and the special effects--these wowed me, but the film's theme of dreams triumphing over reality touched me to the very core because it gave me such hope. At that time in my life, all I had to hold on to were my dreams. They were, of course, the slightly ridiculous dreams of a 13 year old, but by making a little girl one of the protagonists of the film (a little girl who couldn't have been that much younger than I was at the time), I felt validated. This film brought me such joy and relief; I will always cherish it as one of my favorites. It was also vastly underrated by critics.

And so, I fear, is The Brothers Grimm.

I will begin by admitting that The Brothers Grimm is not Gilliam's most important film (that title will go to Brazil, the Most Frighteningly Prescient Film Ever Made). It is probably not his most inventive film (I would award that to either Time Bandits or Baron Munchausen). It is not his most dramatically satisfying film in terms of character development (The Fisher King). It did not instantly touch me the way that Baron Munchausen did, nor did I expect it to. (That film experience is, I think, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and fortunately, I'm not in the same mental place that I was then.)

But I was never bored during The Brothers Grimm, and I found it to be visually lush and imaginative in an age when films are endlessly ripping off old TV shows or other films. It is not a snarky metaphysical exercise; it is a diverting adventure. You can tell that the script was not written by Gilliam, but there are some trademark Gilliam touches throughout. (The unpleasant, yet darkly comic, fate of a kitten is classic Python, for example.)

Before this film opened, I was extremely careful not to read any reviews or much advance press. I didn't want to know anything about what would happen. I wanted to strap myself into the roller coaster and go along with the ride with both eyes open. Now that I look back on the experience, I am glad that I did so, so I think that now that I'm at least halfway through this review, I'm going to keep it largely spoiler-free so that you can have that experience as well, if you haven't already seen it. The plot involves the famous Brothers Grimm, whom we first meet as con artists, ridding townsfolk all over Germany of their supposed witches and evil spirits for an exorbitant price. They are arrested and then coerced into investigating the disappearance of 12 little girls in another village and discover that some fairy tales have more than a kernel of truth to them.

At first I was a little worried about the casting of Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, neither of whom I have strong positive feelings towards. I think they did a good job here, and I was always happy to see the film develop their characters further. I particularly enjoyed Ledger's performance as the shy, bookish Jacob, who has more faith in the fantastic than Damon's dominant, pragmatic, and protective Wilhelm. Lena Headey gave a strong performance as Angelika, their guide into the enchanted forest, although if IMDB is to be believed, Samantha Morton would have been amazing.

In fact, I wish that the characters could have spent even more time in the forest, with its moving, threatening trees, its swarm of insects, and its mysterious ruins. The forest--and the terrifying, yet inventive, ways in which the little girls are kidnapped--remind us of why we love Gilliam movies in the first place. No one makes the impossible look more real.

The film is not without its flaws, however. Some characters, like Peter Stormare's Cavaldi, are downright over-the-top and irritating. I kept waiting for him to just die already and then...well, you'll see. The pacing of the film was a bit uneven as well...just stay in the forest, already! Jonathan Pryce (whom I adore) basically reprised his role from Baron Munchausen as the fussy bureaucrat who comes around now and then to provide further obstacles when the plot is already exciting and complicated enough. Although he really makes that kitten scene work...

But overall, The Brothers Grimm was an enjoyable experience, and I'm not really sure what all the critics are bitching about. Maybe I'm just biased. I have read that there was some creative wrangling between Gilliam and the Weinsteins, and although it is a bit disappointing to think what could have been, I think that the cast and crew rose above the production difficulties. I would totally see it again, in theaters even, so I can recommend you spend your hard-earned cash there. You know, whatever you don't burn at the gas pump these days...