TRUTH, ACCORDING to the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci), a character living under a curse in Terry Gilliam's disappointing fairy-tale fantasia "The Brothers Grimm," is "much more terrible than fiction." In the case of Gilliam's heavily (and rather pointlessly) fictionalized story of real-life German folklorist brothers Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, I'm afraid the exact opposite is true. Well, maybe not terrible so much as terminally silly.
More enchanted than enchanting, Gilliam's movie (scripted by Ehren "The Skeleton Key" Kruger) reimagines the brothers, referred to ever so contemporarily as Jake and Will, as a pair of itinerant, "Van Helsing"-style ghostbusters. Think of them as "Team Grimm," to use the words of the smarmily charming Will (Matt Damon), who, along with his bookish sibling (Heath Ledger), makes a living gulling superstitious, early 19th-century German townsfolk out of their money by exorcising their barns of spirits, demons, witches and the like. With a background more in theater and the tricks of stagecraft than in the actual breaking of magic spells -- which Will doesn't even believe in, but the more credulous Jake does -- the pair come in for a shock when they are recruited by a general of the occupying French army (Jonathan Pryce, channeling Peter Sellers's Jacques Clouseau) to expose someone, or something, who has been haunting the forests of Marsbaden.
When it turns out that whatever has been abducting the children of the village is, in fact, supernatural, and not some charlatan using smoke and mirrors like the Grimms, things get interesting. Or at least they could, if Gilliam and Kruger only knew what they were doing. Borrowing liberally from such footnotes to the frightfest canon as "Exorcist: The Beginning," "An American Werewolf in London" and "Ghostbusters," the filmmakers can't ever seem to make up their minds whether they want us to laugh or to be scared (though, truth be told, it's probably both).
As a result, we end up not doing a whole heck of a lot of either, as when one manifestation of the town's resident evil takes the form of a Pillsbury Doughboy-shaped blob of mud, which then proceeds to swallow a small child and jump down a well. I'm supposed to be afraid of this thing, which looks like a piece of brown flubber with a face? I have news for you: It isn't even funny, just weird.
As for the main characters, Jake is a jumpy, histrionic mess, with Ledger apparently having been told to limit his frantic acting to a narrow range of grunts and semi-verbal vocalizations, including, at one point, a half-muttered "okay." That's just one of the self-consciously anachronistic touches, calculated to let us know that "The Brothers Grimm" doesn't take itself, let alone its time period, too, you know, seriously. Damon, constantly flashing his newscaster's teeth and flaunting a fake, "Masterpiece Theatre" dialect, comes across like someone who got lost on the way to an audition for a high school production of "The Pirates of Penzance." For some reason, all the Germans -- unlike the French, and even one Italian character called Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) -- have English accents, including the brothers' shared love interest, Angelika (Lena Headey).
One nice thing: As with all of Gilliam's films, "Grimm" at least looks good, though the special effects occasionally veer toward the cheesy.
But what are we to make of all the Sturm und Drang? What the real Brothers Grimm's work was all about is the ability of storytelling to tame and express our darkest fears, to exert mastery over a frightening world, both within and without our heads. And granted, there is some nonsense toward the end of the film about the power of belief and the magic of the written word.
But the movie, which, like "Pirates of the Caribbean," constantly winks at its own hipness, never commits to anything other than a style. If only the movie trusted its own story as much as its central characters ultimately learn to trust theirs. In the final analysis, what it's more interested in is having a happy ending rather than actually earning one.
THE BROTHERS GRIMM (PG-13, 118 minutes) -- Contains spooky, supernatural goings-on, some gruesome imagery and occasional obscenity. Area theaters.