Terry Gilliam, who directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Time Bandits (1981), The Meaning of Life (1983), Brazil (1985), The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), among several other films, is the reason I recently bought a ticket for a “one night only” screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, because I will support whatever he decides to release as a movie, and I will tell others about the latest Terry Gilliam movie. At this point it’s like supporting a friend who has a band or something, and they put on a show, and you have to go, and it’s gonna be great, because, you know, it’s your friend’s show, and sometimes not very many people make it out to the show.
Right now though, you really want a win for your friend, because it’s been awhile for him, and you know the history of this latest film, an almost 30-year struggle of Mr. Gilliam trying to get this movie made, a project that has been in progress for so long that it has had a generational series of different actors, as the movie fell apart several times for several reasons. Now, it’s completed, with Jonathan Price and the new Millennial Darth Vader-wannabe from Star Wars, Adam Driver, as the stars, but you can’t help but think of the others who might have been in this film if you saw it almost 30 years ago.
This film is an exploration of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes metafictional novel of a man whose fantastical life as a knight-errant slops over onto reality, a beloved theme for director Gilliam, who folds the tale in upon itself with additional layers of meta involving a director making a Don Quixote movie, who somehow enables a real-life agent of chivalry.
I got so outside of this film trying to keep my expectations in check for something so long delayed, that all I could do was is try to not look forward to seeing it, and then once I got in the theater, I failed at not being disappointed. It was fine, but it’s surrounded by the haze of what it could have, should have, might have been.
The film starts by doing something I think everybody loves, which is to shit on the industry of Advertising, as we witness Mr. Driver’s jaded commercial director being an asshole making pretentious crap to sell stuff. He’s unhappy and empty, and by happenstance is presented with a DVD of the student film he made years ago, when he cast a local cobbler in the role of Don Quixote. Then he has an identity crisis as he meets with more people we love to hate, clients, but it’s easy to see them as Mr. Gilliam’s idea of movie producers, the money people, and I got happy thinking the film was going to be a whole bunch of showing how shitty the movie business is, and Terry Gilliam should know, because he produced a bunch of visionary hits, but lately he can’t ever seem to scrape up enough dough to fully realize his projects, which would be confirmed by anyone who saw his film The Zero Theorem (2013), and watched the money run out, on screen.
As we trip from flashback to dream to fantasy to movie, the menace of the money people stays in the picture, well manifested by Stellan Skarsgård and Jordi Mollà, big-money goons leaning on the director, but Mr. Driver is miscast, he was great at being a tortured spoiled director, but he’s too vigorous, I kept not believing he was in any kind of jeopardy. There’s no way I could watch this film and not think what it would have been with Johnny Depp playing the character, he’s the guy I would believe as being afraid of physical violence and afraid of the police, one of Gilliam’s favorite themes. Mr. Driver is the big doofus from Girls, he’s Darth Vader Jr., for fuck’s sake, he can project weakness, but not the right kind.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Pryce, a guy I know from a few Terry Gilliam movies, plus recently he was the High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, is the cobbler who would be the Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, a chivalrous knight-errant, and he is doeeng an ethSpanish acksenn’, and it sucked me out of the movie. It’s a solid emotional performance that goes from nuanced to appropriately overblown, all within the scope of the delusional Quixote’s diagnosis, but the accent ripped me out of the movie, yes, it’s all made up, and actors are people who act like other people from other places and sometimes other planets, but this one, this time, it just seemed a little shticky. I only have so much disbelief to suspend, and I have been suspending my disbelief for over 20 years about this flick ever getting made, and I came to the theater for Terry Gilliam, and he put on a show, and I’ll be at the next one.