The True Don Quixote review – Tim Blake Nelson tilts at whimsy in Cervantes update

The Coen brothers regular plays a delusional ex-librarian who goes questing on a motorbike and sidecar in this good-natured retelling of the classic adventure

Set in the present day, in some American backwoods town where the accents have a softly southern cadence, this likable effort reworks Miguel de Cervantes’s immortal much-adapted novel with veteran character actor and Coen brothers regular Tim Blake Nelson in the title role. It is written and directed by Chris Poche, at the helm for the first time after writing duties on an assortment of animated features including Hoodwinked and Over the Hedge. Poche’s iteration of Quixote imagines the hero, Danny Kehoe, as an unemployed ex-librarian living with his niece Janelle (Ann Mahoney). He is delusional and disturbed rather than, as other versions have posited, having dementia.

As Kehoe burrows deeper into his fantasy world, he becomes convinced he is a medieval knight, and, while battling a dragon (here, an oilwell pump instead of a windmill), he befriends a young, similarly unemployed man named Kevin (played by sometime Spider-Man sidekick and ace straight man Jacob Batalon). Redubbing Kevin “Sancho” and promising to pay him eventually – though perhaps only in glory rather than “lucre” – Kehoe sets forth on a stolen vintage motorcycle with sidecar – a vehicle the knight names “Rosacea”.

For those familiar with the original story, the running joke about Danny’s new silly names for his figures of fantasy – for instance, the romantic inamorata from Cervantes, Dulcinea del Toboso, becomes the lady Dolce Leche de Tabasco – is sort of cute but also a bit lame. Actually, that description could do for the whole movie: a whimsical, good-natured romp, sure, but one that’s only mildly amusing. It feels a bit like a Shakespeare play put on by a school theatrical troupe where the title and setting are randomly matched, Mad Libs-style. Like The Merry Wives of Windsor set in the wild west, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream unfolding during the Ming dynasty. The costume department clearly had a blast putting together Quixote’s armour of deconstructed steamer baskets and pot holders, but the final effect is a tiny bit patronising, as though the film-makers are trying to get their audience interested in capital-L Literature.

• The True Don Quixote is released on 2 August on digital platforms.

Contributor

Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

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