Whether it be chewing gum in the regionally shot Fantastic Four or crooning southern tunes in a Cohen Brothers flick, actor Tim Blake Nelson has a knack for finding something, anything, to latch onto in a character. This despite and even in spite of lacking materials. Well, lacking is a tad harsh, as filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and sometimes a movie doesn’t come together clearly until all players and crewmembers have had their say of interpretation. Nelson himself has directed films before and understands the stress of creative leadership. Being a veteran actor, he perhaps knows this better than most modern career directors. If you worry you’re tilting at windmills, you could do worse than having Tim Blake Nelson on your side.
Chris Poche’s previous writing outing was the French Quarter quirky comedy Flakes – back when Hollywood South was but a glimmer. Here, he enters the director’s chair with his own Southeast Louisiana adaptation of the classic Cervantes novel known here as The True Don Quixote, with Nelson portraying the very lovable and oblivious wannabe hero. Poche’s storytelling in Flakes relied upon the oddness of its setting and the rebellious nature of its denizens. The same can be said in this film. Its central focus is on Quixote himself who, as explained by the unseen narrator, was a shy mobile librarian before losing his job, his pride, and his reason(ing) via a car accident. Some pots, pans, and antiques later, and we have a DIY Don Quixote, turned up to eleven in the Louisiana humidity.
It’s crystal clear that Poche has a “let him be” soft spot for this otherwise pathetic man turned “knight,” but what goes without concern is the mental illness element. Glossed over and never brought back, a mysterious voice convinces this man to go forth and lead a life of book-inspired chivalry. However it was brought about – getting hit on the head, his depression, etc – his quest began with a voice only he could hear. Not to give away any spoilers, but the movie ends up making the case for the freedom to have public mental breakdowns, ala Emperor Norton (Google him), as long as it’s harmless and cute.
The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus featured a sign, pinned up in the beloved doctor’s laboratory, saying, “Fight Mental Health.” In one gag, that movie made a statement about New Orleans area culture, expressing that one man’s illness is another’s eccentricity. Let them be and party on, basically. It’s an outdated notion, sure, but one that speaks to our casual and accepting nature here in the Big Easy. A nature that is disappearing quickly. Poche grasps this with his setting and exploration of the people that interact with Quixote but misses the mark a bit with the very character. This is where Tim Blake Nelson comes into play.
Nelson goes for the gold as a hero laughed at initially and loved in the end, portraying a most sincere attitude that builds various acceptable perceptions to be shot his way. Some are weirded out, others easily relate to him. These supporting players and their reactions could only be found to occur this way in this region. They even do a disco second line as a toast to him, for goodness sake, enabling someone who probably should be on medication. Nelson’s Quixote is a fragile shell of a man with the spirit of a thousand lions. A spirit that is identified as something that needs to be treated and snuffed out by officials, but held in high regard by locals. Who is right? Is Quixote’s existence wrong? Tim Blake Nelson expresses a deep understanding of this grand delusion/illusion within Don Quixote, one that suggests, here anyway, that he’s the least “crazy” of them all, inflicting a joy and level of thought in all he comes across.
Thus the tragic confusion and conclusion suffered by this critic. Poche and Nelson make a heck of a team, bringing to startling life a version of a literary classic that is at once true to form, highly funny, heartbreaking, and usually complex. But, in its depiction of not only a character and a man but a modern culture we live in, an escapist need for the fantastical above everything else could prove the saddest end of all. The True Don Quixote needed more than encouragement to sink further into delusion, more than being enabled to produce more wicked antics. In its own way, Poche’s adaptation goes for the gut by letting Tim Blake Nelson hit at the soul of what it all means now. A conflict? Sure. A marriage of disagreement? Maybe. Despite and in spite of nitpicks, we have a twisted winner of tilting windmills.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
The True Don Quixote had its world premiere at the 29th New Orleans Film Festival
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations and Occupy. You can read more of Bill’s work here.