Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, a big-budget fantasy-action spectacle starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, has the kind of production history that trade journals conventionally--and sometimes rather euphemistically--describe as "troubled." The film started out under the aegis of MGM, and then in midstream changed studio horses to Dimension Films, the successful fiefdom of Bob Weinstein, the less public (but no less assertive) half of the sibling team that founded the Miramax empire. According to news reports, Gilliam and Weinstein clashed over their separate visions of the project both during and after production, and the movie spent more than a year in limbo prior to its release this week.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's perhaps because "troubled" could be Terry Gilliam's middle name. The former Monty Python animator's 1985 critical breakthrough, Brazil, made its initial splash no less for its eye-popping visual surrealism than for Gilliam's public feud with Universal head Sidney Sheinberg, whom the director attempted to embarrass into releasing his film by blasting him with ads in the trade press. (The studio responded by releasing a truncated version of Brazil in the United States) Gilliam's subsequent career has been a much-noted chronicle of art-vs.-money spats, meltdowns, face-offs, recriminations, and sometimes, just plain bad luck. The last time we saw him, he was starring in Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about his jinx-plagued production of Don Quixote.
That project inevitably brings to mind Orson Welles, who himself not only attempted to bring Cervantes' hapless hero to the screen but also, at times, seemed to be his very reincarnation. Like Welles, Gilliam has developed a reputation for profligacy and difficulty that seems, if not wholly undeserved, overblown in exact proportion to the tendency of Hollywood executives to blame and stigmatize any filmmaker nervy enough to stand by a determinedly idiosyncratic creative agenda.
But their sometimes quixotic idiosyncrasy isn't the only thing that links Welles and Gilliam. Both manifest artistic visions that seem eternally tied to childhood, magic and illusionism. Both have personalities that could well get them branded cineholics: They make films like Al Pacino scarfs up a sand dune of cocaine in Scarface, as if addicted to the thrill and challenge and intoxication of this singular creative enterprise. Such propensities in both filmmakers entail a thrillingly ornate stylistic extravagance, as well as an occasional nagging doubt that all the creative sound and fury ultimately signify ... well, less than one might hope.
What amazes in Gilliam's films, as so often in Welles', is the combination of imaginative brio, unflagging physical energy and moment-to-moment precision of execution. Making a movie as packed with high-octane set pieces as Brothers Grimm is cannot be easy work, yet Gilliam, now well into his 60s, performs like a 25-year-old jacked on caffeine and nerve. Scripted by Ehren Kruger (a young writer whose long list of credits extends from Arlington Road to The Ring to Scream 3), the film's story is basically a pretext for a string of such set pieces, this time of the gothic-phantasmagoric variety. Rather than dramatizing the lives of the real brothers Grimm, whose collections of folk tales lifted them from destitution to the ranks of the 19th century's most successful and influential authors, the film imagines a couple of fictional Grimms (Damon and Ledger), raffish charlatans who stage cons by faking supernatural events, before getting drawn into some real supernatural action that involves Grimm characters like Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
The gleefully baroque visual attack you'd expect from Gilliam given this premise is here in profusion. Brothers Grimm is supposedly his most expensive film to date, and all that money makes it to the screen in the film's sumptuous period look (set in Napoleon-occupied Germany, it was shot in the Czech Republic), nonstop action and special effects. Yet there were many times in the film that I was naggingly conscious that what I was watching was the product not of one strong personality, but two.
Reportedly, Gilliam and Weinstein diverged over the casting of the female lead. Gilliam hired Samantha Morton, an acclaimed actress who Weinstein replaced with Lena Headey, who is less well-known but more of a babe. That kind of creative "tension" perhaps explains why Brothers Grimm ultimately reminded me less of real pieces of Gilliam eccentricity like Brazil or 12 Monkeys than of The Crow and a long line of other, mostly formulaic and forgettable f/x-action films cranked out by Dimension.
As the choice of actresses indicates, Dimension films are all about the obvious and the superficial, and most seem computer-designed to cater to the mindset of some archetypal 14-year-old boy. Many of these films are brilliantly crafted, but they are also hollow and annoying. More than anything, they thrive on constant motion and noise, like a toy designed never to slow down or lessen its maddening clatter lest some minimal attention span fail to be diverted for a fraction of a second. Naturally, such films can be very engaging, at least for while, but they also tend to be tiresome and grating for the simple reason that they convey not even the slightest suggestion of an inner life to the characters or story.
I'm not suggesting here that Bob Weinstein has ruined Terry Gilliam's movie, but rather that Gilliam has done what was probably the necessary thing under the circumstances: made a movie that melds his and Weinstein's interests. In fact, those interests may not be that antagonistic or far apart as it might seem, nor are the director's instincts always better than the studio boss'. Yet, whoever one credits or blames, the amalgamation does produce some odd imbalances. Gilliam, for example, elicits two very actorly, finely tuned performances from Damon and Ledger, even though these roles are precisely where the film might have gained from a greater degree of pop exuberance--or wackier casting. (Memo to Bob: Was Will Ferrell busy that summer?)
Along with Peter Jackson and Tim Burton, Gilliam is among the contemporary cinema's most distinctive fantasists. Like Orson Welles, though, he's dogged by the suspicion not only that he seldom lives up to his artistic potential, but that he unwittingly collaborates in the undermining of his reputation and thus of his ability to mount the films he wants to make. But there's always hope, and the good news of late is that Gilliam's next film, Tideland, which debuts this fall, was made independently, without the assistance of Dimension or the Weinsteins.
In the book of my personal regard, Terry Gilliam and Jim Jarmusch occupy similar pages. Though not a bona fide fan of either director, I have tremendous admiration for an early movie by each. In Gilliam's case, it's the wondrous Time Bandits, a marvel of imaginative whimsy. In the Jarmusch canon, Stranger Than Paradise, a minimalist black and white comedy in three sections, still strikes me as note-perfect and startlingly original.
My problem with much of Jarmusch's work since that 1984 breakthrough comes from the sense that he's worked harder to maintain his aura of "hip, cool" filmmaking than to expand his art. He's a middle-class kid from Ohio, after all, so why has he seemed almost pathologically averse to making a film about ordinary, grass-cutting Americans?
After more than two decades of filmmaking, Jarmusch has taken that leap, and I'm pleased to say that Broken Flowers strikes me not only as a decided artistic advance--the kind that can give new life to a career that seemed like it might have already stalled out--but also a highly pleasing and accomplished film on numerous levels.
The omens, of course, were not good, since the film looked like another example of a pretentious, faux-hip director enlisting Bill Murray in hopes that the actor's now-approaching-cliché deadpan drollery could rescue an underdeveloped script. Happily, unlike Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, Jarmusch has done himself and Murray the favor of writing a smart, carefully crafted screenplay that bolsters both of their efforts from the first frame on.
Murray plays a successful businessman and aging "Don Juan" (the film jokingly underscores this designation several times over) who receives an anonymous letter from an ex-lover claiming that he fathered a son with her 19 years before. Propelled by a busybody neighbor (the wonderful Jeffrey Wright), the businessman heads out on a road trip aimed at discovering the letter's author, an odyssey that brings him into contact with a succession of former girlfriends played by actresses including Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. (Chloe Sevigny and Julie Delpy round out a cast that's heavy on female talent and beauty.)
An ad I saw for the film called it "laugh out loud funny," but this is not Wedding Crashers or The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Like the best of Jarmusch's work, it would better be described as "thoughtful funny" or "downbeat, slightly melancholy funny." And no, Jarmusch hasn't entirely lost his tendency toward self-conscious artiness; the film feels a mite too aware that it's operating in Raymond Carver country, brooding on the costs of American emotional isolation and male midlife angst.
Yet this is also Jarmusch at his most nuanced and confident as a director; every new home the Murray character enters prompts a slightly revised visual strategy, each worked out with consummate subtlety and expressiveness. Best of all, though, is the film's human dimension. Every time Murray meets one of his former flames, Jarmusch, in scenes sketched with shrewd insight and economy, manages to conjure up a whole relationship in just a few minutes. (The film is unspecific geographically, but precise and evocative in terms of class. Murray's character, once a hippie, is now solidly upper-middle-class; two of his exes have followed him in upward mobility; two others have not.)
Call it "think about it the next day funny." The film's wealth of resonant details and delicate emotional undercurrents stayed with me more than almost any film I've seen this year. That's a good sign coming from a filmmaker who now looks like he's aiming for longevity.