Terry Gilliam has visual flair to burn, but I've always felt more browbeaten than switched-on by his heavily designed movies. Aside from the lovely The Fisher King, which was warmed by a genuine dramatic story and the presence of Jeff Bridges, Gilliam's films have felt chilly and inhumane. I can't tell whether he's a mad genius or a big, floppy kid hobbled by a gift for catastrophe and the desire to do as he pleases and hang the cost. Lost in La Mancha, the entertaining story of Gilliam's abortive attempt to put his own spin on the tale of Don Quixote, does little to clear the matter up.
Made by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who previously followed Gilliam around with a nosy camera during the making of Twelve Monkeys, the documentary (slowed by superfluous narration from Bridges, who's there presumably to lend star power) works a facile parallel that has a limited shelf life. Gilliam has spent his career tilting at Hollywood windmills—he tried for 10 years to get the Quixote movie going as a studio picture. In fact, though, the studios had bowed out well before the doc started. Gilliam decided to press ahead with European backing—a risky proposition for someone as addicted to the grand scale as he is. The first part of Lost in La Mancha, which centers on pre-production, is pretty absorbing as Gilliam, an affable, impatient bear of a man with a machine-gun giggle, tries to pull together his enormously ambitious plans with inadequate funds, stars (Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis) with impossibly tight schedules, and a pan-European babel of a crew. ("Making a film with Terry is like riding a bareback pony," says his stoical Aussie assistant director, Phil Patterson.) Watching this mayhem, you wonder how any movie ever gets made.
The rest is like watching a disaster movie, for what finally scuppers the project is not the undeniably poor planning and coordination, but nature and rotten luck in biblical doses. Too bad for Gilliam and everyone involved, but in the departments of spectacle and schadenfreude, great fun for us.
Lost in La Mancha was written and directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe; produced by Lucy Darwin. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.
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