“And now, after more than 25 years in the making and unmaking…” So reads the teasing opening title card of Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. By now, the tortured ins and outs of that making and unmaking have been well chronicled — most vividly in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Setbacks, curses, and various acts of God that would have sent less hardy souls packing (or maybe even off to the loony bin) have only made Gilliam more determined to beat his white whale. One only hopes that the former member of Monty Python has been able to see the comic absurdity of his quest.
Nothing has ever come easily when it comes the Brazil director’s overstuffed cinematic fantasias. He almost seems to court disaster as part of his creative process. The only question is, after a quarter-century of offscreen drama and fits and starts, was it worth all the trouble in the end? For Gilliam, the answer has to be yes. After all, he can now once and for all triumphantly scratch Don Quixote off his yellowing to-do list. For audiences, however, the verdict is more of a mixed bag.
With Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce now in the roles once occupied by Johnny Depp and the late Jean Rochefort, Don Quixote turns out to be a pretty typical Gilliam film: whimsically daffy, frantically overstuffed, and art-directed to within in an inch of its life. It’s often transporting, but even more often exhausting.
Driver stars as Toby, an arrogant hotshot director making a Don Quixote-themed TV commercial in rural Spain for a brand of Russian vodka. Like Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido in Fellini’s 8½, he’s also caught in the whirlwind of nervous breakdown, wrestling with whether he’s a sellout or an artist. His budget is running over, he’s sleeping with his producer’s wife (Olga Kurylenko), and he’s chasing after ideas like a bull charging after a red cape.
Years earlier, Toby shot a black-and-white student film about Don Quixote in a nearby village. It launched his career. And the inspiration that juiced that film still taunts him. So he decides to look up the actors from that previous movie to add some life to his new one, including a beautiful local girl (Joana Ribeiro) as his Dulcinea and an elderly shoemaker (a frisky, playful Pryce) as Quixote.
The problem is, Pryce’s Javier actually believes that he’s Cevantes’ famous knight errant. He’s also convinced that Driver’s Toby is his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza. The desperate Toby plays along with the charade until fact blurs with fiction and spins off into the realm of time-traveling fantasy. It’s a clever idea bristling with meta possibilities. But Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) have too many ideas and, worse, try to cram them all into the film’s already bloated 132-minute running time. Twenty-five years of gestation will do that.
Driver is the film’s real saving grace. His snippy delivery can turn throwaway lines and labored wordplay into barbed poison darts. And he moves with the slapstick physicality of a silent-era movie star. But the busy story line whizzing and whirring around him is just too much save, with too many gags that fail to land. You can’t help but root for a maverick like Gilliam and his quixotic quest of a movie. He’s an original in an industry with too few of them. But The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a surreal, aimless hash — the cinematic equivalent of a romantic knight lost in his own daydream, tilting at windmills. C
More movie reviews:
- Body-swap comedy Little is silly, scattershot fun
- Elisabeth Moss’ Her Smell tells half a story of rock life
- Animated Missing Link is a wispy-sweet Sasquatch comedy
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote