In trying to get his dream project finished, Terry Gilliam has been tilting at windmills for 25 years now.
The “Monty Python” member first tried to shoot “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” around the turn of the century, with Johnny Depp starring, an effort dogged by catastrophe (as chronicled in the fascinating documentary “Lost in La Mancha”). Over the years, Gilliam kept re-casting the film and raising funds.
When the project finally got made, there was a last-minute threat to pull the movie just as it was set to debut at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — more drama about money. It hardly seems real that this thing actually exists.
But here it is, and Gilliam’s vision heroically survives, even if (characteristically, for this madman filmmaker) it all eventually collapses in a chaotic heap.
Our central figure is a pompous movie director, Toby (Adam Driver), currently in Spain to shoot a slick commercial. He realizes he’s near a town where, a decade earlier, he’d shot a “Don Quixote” movie — back in the days when he actually cared about his art.
Taking off alone to revisit his old shooting locations, Toby runs into the humble cobbler (Jonathan Pryce) he’d cast as Don Quixote. Turns out the man has spent the past decade convinced he actually is the hero of the great Cervantes novel, the noble knight who defends the honor of women and fights giants roaming the countryside.
The two men go off on a jaunt, leading to misadventures and slapstick pratfalls. For at least the first hour it’s wild fun, fueled by Gilliam’s exuberance and a terrifically funny performance by Adam Driver.
Gilliam generally gets into trouble when required to tie his stories together, and this one really begins to fall apart toward the end.
For Gilliam, the era of relatively coherent movies like “Brazil” and “The Fisher King” seems very distant; these days he’s a circus ringmaster, parading the carnival acts back and forth while not really worrying whether you lose the plot. If there is a plot.
Pryce, who starred in “Brazil,” totally commits to playing Quixote, remaining inside his own dreamworld throughout. He and Driver obviously “get” Gilliam, in a way some of the other actors — Stellan Skarsgard and Olga Kurylenko among them — do not.
So: Let’s face it, the movie is a mess. I found it an often exhilarating mess, even though Gilliam’s style — still rooted in the 1960s and those zany animations he made for “Monty Python” — looks more heavy-handed than ever. At least it’s the work of a free man, not beholden to the corporate bottom line or fitting into a pre-existing universe. For this we can be grateful.
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (2½ stars)
Terry Gilliam’s long-plagued dream project is about a movie director (Adam Driver in a terrific comic performance) who reunites with the Spanish cobbler (Jonathan Pryce) he’d once cast in a film about Don Quixote; now the guy thinks he really is the noble knight. Very funny in its opening hour, the movie falls apart pretty badly by the end — still, Gilliam’s circus visions are original, even when he wears you out.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for subject matter
Opening Friday: Grand Illusion Cinema, Seattle