When Europe’s best soccer players are washed up and broken down, their ankles turning gelatinous and their knees crumbling, they get sent over here to play out their final years. In return, we send Europe our washed-up movie directors.
It had been some years since I’d seen a Terry Gilliam picture, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote brought back some unpleasant flashbacks. Not again, I thought, as Gilliam piled on weirdly unfunny slapstick, hysterical overacting, and a vide-grenier decor, all in the service of rudderless scenes that drift along forever as though the actors had been told to improvise, having been promised incorrectly that someone would make sense of everything in the editing room.
A few years ago Variety accidentally published an obituary of Gilliam. He was not dead; he was just resting. Yet the career obit could have been written back in the Nineties. Twelve Monkeys (1995), a smart adaptation of Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, was the last time Gilliam showed any interest in telling a story rather than indulging his fever visions, and Twelve Monkeys turned out to be his last good film. Since then, watching Gilliam’s work has been like trying to cross a swamp while carrying a heavy load. You can feel the suck beneath your feet. You regret taking the first step into the mire. You wish you were someplace more interesting, like the line at the post office. For all of the clash and clatter he puts into his films, Gilliam is an intensely boring filmmaker.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was for 20 years one of the most legendary of all unmade films, its various snafus and curses being the subject of a 2002 documentary about Gilliam, Lost in La Mancha. Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, two actors who agreed to play Don in earlier versions, are now dead. It’s a pity that any version (this one is dedicated to Jean and John) has been completed. The project was far better as an ideal of what might have been, just as Orson Welles’s fabled work The Other Side of the Wind, which took more than 40 years to complete, turned out to be a sad, self-indulgent wreck when it finally made it to theaters last fall. Like Welles, Gilliam didn’t play well with others and retreated to Europe for nostalgia-financing from suckers who failed to recognize that visual flair without narrative organization isn’t terribly useful.
Gilliam’s riff on Don Quixote turns out to be another of the many saggy, shapeless scripts about fantasy and storytelling he has co-written since he abandoned studio-style filmmaking and took up permanent residence in a cinematic dreamland where nothing coheres. Gilliam might have had a very different career if he had simply fired himself as a writer and set about making cinema out of great scripts by pros such as David and Janet Peoples (Twelve Monkeys) and Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King). Gilliam is best on a leash, not as a crazed knight-errant on a journey into his own amorphous fancy.
A Don Quixote film, then, is a bit too on-brand for Gilliam, as though Alec Baldwin made Anger Management or Peter Dinklage starred in Ant-Man. In a role Johnny Depp was to play in the late 1990s, Adam Driver plays Toby, a dissolute, bored director filming a Quixote-themed commercial in Spain when he comes across a DVD of his student film on the man of La Mancha, which starred a humble cobbler (Jonathan Pryce) pressed into service as Quixote. Remembering he was once a young and hungry artist instead of the overfed hack he has become, Toby in effect slips through the looking glass, as in many other previous Gilliam films. Whatever happened to the 15-year-old girl, Angelica, whom he also hired for the film? She is now a luscious, grown beauty (Joana Ribeiro). Running into Pryce’s character again, Toby finds that the old man really seems to believe he is Don Quixote, which turns Toby into a fumbling, stumbling Sancho Panza.
Many extended, abysmal attempts at Cervantes-inspired physical comedy ensue; Toby falling into a ditch, Toby discovering gold coins in the corpse of an animal, “Don Quixote” making up legends while Toby yells, “Shut the f*** up!” What the point of any of it is, I couldn’t say. It’s all jumble and stumble. My patience was exhausted early. After 90 minutes, I felt like calling Amnesty International and reporting a human-rights violation. There were still 45 minutes to go. What is real? What is imagination? Gilliam asks. I could only whimper in reply, “Please stop.”