Terry Gilliam was my childhood hero, mainly due to his films Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and slightly later, thanks to the delightfully nonsensical animated sequences I could see when “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” aired on Nick at Nite. It is always a terrible experience when your childhood heroes let you down. When The Brothers Grimm had its Japan premiere in the 2005 Tokyo International Film Festival, Maestro Gilliam was scheduled to attend the screening. I stayed up late to win a ticket in an online auction, but then a stupid work commitment prohibited me from actually using that ticket. That in itself was a great disappointment. Then generally negative reviews of the film began to spread, and I decided to avoid the film, least I be even more disappointed by my childhood hero.
Finally watching The Brothers Grimm, it is not hard to see why the reviews were largely negative. One might expect from Terry Gilliam, a collection of Grimm Fairy Tales imaginatively filmed in separate episodes and loosely tied together, in the vein of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), but that is not what this is at all. Nor does it have much to do with the real Grimm Brothers, who spent their life writing German dictionaries and collecting folk tales. Jake and Will Grimm appear late-18th-century Ghostbusters. This central conceit was probably a bit too silly for many film critics to swallow, though once you get past it, the film actually becomes enjoyable. Then there is the issue of Matt Damon’s hair and sideburns, which were famously modeled on celebrity British chef Jamie Oliver. Every time he is on the screen, you cannot help but wonder if it is a wig, generously moussed hair, or if something else altogether is going on up there.
Although these new, retooled Brothers highly-sought after witch hunters in Napoleon-controlled Germany, it is soon revealed that they do not really believe in what they are doing, and are only in the spirit trade for the money. Before long, they are sent to investigate another set of ghost hunters who have been posing as the Brother Grim and giving them a bad name. When they come across some truly frightening ghoulies, the still do not believe that they are encountering the spirit world, thinking that they are dealing with a team of charlatans like themselves. Will Grimm looks on in awe and exclaims “these people are much better funded than we are!” It is a line that is difficult not to attribute to Gilliam and his disappointment in being passed over as director of the Harry Potter films.
Originally Matt Damon and Heath Ledger were cast in opposite roles, and they petitioned Gilliam to switch them. I have never been a fan of Damon, but it is nice to watch Ledger playing against type as the weaker, more sensitive of the two brothers, who still feels guilt over their sister who died in childhood. While this is by no means my favorite Gilliam film, Ledger’s performance and the few moments when the Gilliam touch is really there on the screen, made it worthwhile.