The brothers in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm don't start out telling stories. Instead, they exploit them. Artists of bunkum, they scour the 19th-century German countryside for villages terrified by witch infestations or troll sightings. Then they rig a passable simulacrum of the menace with pulleys, gunpowder and accomplices, pretend to vanquish it, and collect their coin.
However, as a tongue-in-cheek subtitle tells us, this is "French-occupied Germany." So sibling charlatans Jakob (Heath Ledger) and Wilhelm (Matt Damon) are arrested on flim-flam charges by Napoleon's imperial overseer, who sentences them to catch whoever's stealing the children from an isolated little town called Marlbaden. And the mystery becomes a fairy tale becomes a rumination on storytelling and an allegory with something to say about current events.
This particular war on terror spotlights that favorite movie premise of fake heroes suddenly confronted with a factual nemesis -- here, the crepuscular denizens of an enchanted forest where little girls in red hoods vanish alike as wayward kids trailing bread crumbs. Confronted with magical doings, Jakob and Wilhelm are initially preoccupied with replicating the phenomena theatrically. With dark humor, satiric overtones and a literal stab at the heart at the fears behind the tales we're told (and tell) at bedtime, Gilliam looks to sift superstition from knowledge, the real from the imaginary.
From Jabberwocky through Brazil and The Fisher King, Gilliam has long wandered a similar thematic line, with the mind's shadows sometimes benevolent, sometimes malign, and reality equally tricky to parse. Familiar too is Gilliam's penchant for muddy, crypto-medieval villages -- the fabulous Marlbaden set is both half-built and half decayed, with cackling crones and roofs shaped like morel mushrooms -- surreal props and costumes (the brothers' mirrored "armor") and stumbling trumpet fanfares.
But with Ehren Kruger's script, Gilliam heads down some fresh trails, too. There are ogres pointedly drawn from today's headlines, such as a leader who prefers obliterating a forest to understanding the evil that dwells within, and a torture chamber where false confessions are extracted. And through it all are characters confronting notions of story, whether swallowing false tales or imposing their own narratives on someone else's way of life.
Ledger, cast for once as a nerd, plays the bookish, conflicted Jakob with a twitchy energy, while Damon is solid as the domineering Wilhelm, who's comfortable in his role as a huckster. They're allied with a beauteous village outcast (played by Lena Headey), and menaced by Peter Stormare as a flared-nostrils Italian officer and Jonathyn Pryce as Napolean's man in Germany.
It's mostly good stuff, though unfortunately burdened with a two-hour running time and a couple action sequences too many. Had Gilliam been a little better storyteller himself, Brothers Grimm might have been lights out.