The Don Quixote movie Terry Gilliam made could never live up to the Don Quixote movie Terry Gilliam didn’t make.
Gilliam (“Brazil,” “Time Bandits”) infamously tried to make a movie called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” almost 20 years ago, only to be thwarted by a series of setbacks that eventually scuttled the production. The project’s implosion was chronicled in a terrific 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha.”
Yet Gilliam persevered. He finally finished “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which has a one-night-only screening nationwide on Wednesday, April 10, including in Madison at Marcus Point, Marcus Palace and New Vision Fitchburg. Like a lot of Gilliam’s films, it has some moments of wild brilliance and some serious dead spots.
Adam Driver ably takes on the role originally meant for Johnny Depp, playing Toby, who once was a struggling young filmmaker. While in Spain, Toby shot his first film, a black-and-white take on “Don Quixote” starring an unknown cobbler (Jonathan Pryce) as Cervantes’ chivalrous hero.
Move forward a decade, and Toby is now a jaded commercial director who has sold his artistic soul for wealth and fame. He’s back in Spain to film an insurance company commercial that’s a parody of “Don Quixote,” much like how Toby’s career has become a parody of what he once hoped to be as a filmmaker.
In disgust, Toby abandons the set and drives to the small village where he found the cobbler. Only now the cobbler, having sunk into dementia, really believes he is Don Quixote, still wearing the costume from Toby’s old film. Believing Toby to be his sidekick Sancho Panza, “Don” whisks him off on a series of misadventures.
Gilliam constantly messes with reality versus fantasy throughout the film. Sometimes what appears real is actually a product of Quixote’s fevered imagination, other times what we think is real is actually a product of Toby’s film set. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is closer in tone to the more grounded “The Fisher King” than some of Gilliam’s more fanciful films like “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”
Gilliam keeps the energy level high for over two hours, with Driver’s manic comedy playing off effortlessly against Pryce’s lofty orations. Underneath the fun, there’s a serious, even cynical message about the near-impossibility of being an uncompromising artist in a world run on commerce.
Like many Gilliam films, “Don Quixote” has a lot of great ideas and a few clunkers, and Gilliam seems unable to edit himself and distinguish between the two. The female characters in the film are particularly underdeveloped, all prizes to be fought over by the main characters.
Is it the movie Gilliam fans hoped to see 20 years ago? Sadly, no. But it has enough Gilliam magic and wit to sustain itself over the rough patches, and the fact that it exists at all, that Gilliam didn’t stop trying to tilt at this particular windmill, is cause for celebration.