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The Brothers Grimm

Fairy-Tale Fantasy Offers Slight Delights

There are unmistakable qualities in all of Terry Gilliam's movies: They are frenetic, scatterbrained tales, each borne out of a grand, almost impossible-to-fathom vision. When Gilliam channels his fantasies into a coherent story, as he did in Twelve Monkeys and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the results can be wondrous. When he allows his hyperactive imagination to dictate the proceedings, his work has ranged from convoluted (Brazil) to unwatchable (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

The Brothers Grimm, his epic tribute to the legendary duo responsible for fairy tales like "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood," is inventive enough, and there are flashes of brilliance mixed into his rambling, undisciplined fantasy. In that sense, it is vintage Gilliam: The sets are extravagant, the action is fast-paced, and the story is blissfully divorced from common sense. It makes for a fun ride, too, if you can disregard its arbitrary twists and ever-so-slight plot.

Gilliam's tale introduces the brothers as traveling con artists, dazzling German townspeople with fake displays of magic and charging them for their services. Jacob (Heath Ledger), a would-be intellectual who has believed in the black arts ever since he traded in the family cow for a sack of magic beans, is growing tired of their high-tech charades. His brother Wilhelm (Matt Damon) is more cynical, determined to build his fortune on a foundation of phony tricks. When the pair is caught in the act by Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), a steely French general, they are shipped off to the village of Marbaden, where an enchanted forest seems to be swallowing young girls.

The boys are hopelessly overmatched, of course -- namely because the forest really is enchanted, and even their fanciest gadgets and glitziest armor cannot protect them from its secrets. But with time and a little help from a local huntress, Angelika (Lena Headey), they unravel its mysteries and try to find a happy ending for the bizarre tale in which they find themselves.

Sound simple enough? It's not. The Brothers Grimm is a collage of stylish scenes that don't necessarily fit, and it is rife with subplots that lead nowhere. Gilliam's devilish sense of humor is evident throughout, particularly in one early shot: As Delatombe interrogates the Grimms, fellow captives are strung up from the ceiling, enduring a barrage of whips and chains as a visibly cheery orchestra plays in the background. It is an irreverent, amusing image, but to what avail? Akira Kurosawa once noted that every scene in a movie should somehow forward its plot. Terry Gilliam, who never hesitates to indulge a flight of fancy, might not agree, but that doesn't mean that his movies can't be messy slices of escapist fun.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars