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Indefatigable actor-director-teacher-artist James Franco might have roles in the upcoming Sundance title I Am Michael and Werner Herzog‘s Queen of the Desert, set to premiere in Berlin, but his first festival stop this year was Palm Springs, where he presented Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, a rather enjoyable if low-key picaresque that was directed by 10 of Franco’s USC students and written by eight others. Actors Carmen Argenziano and Horatio Sanz have a ball as the titular hero and his loyal sidekick, respectively, while Franco has a hammy supporting role that is the most tonally problematic element of this otherwise rather coherent collaborative effort. Decent VOD deals should be in the cards and other festivals will also likely warm to this refreshingly lighter work, while the newbie directors will hopefully be able to put their first on-set experiences to good use on their own, more personal projects.
In many ways, the production history of this coarsely funny Cervantes adaptation is reminiscent of Franco’s hand in the C.K. Williams biopic Tar (later renamed The Color of Time), which his students on the other coast, at NYU, jointly directed in 2012. For Quixote, there’s also a long list of young directorial hopefuls — here, David Beier, Dave Dorsey, Mahin Ibrahim, Austin Kolodney, Will Lowell, Drue Metz, Brandon Somerhalder, Alana Waksman, Jon YonKondy and Xu Zhang — and it is unclear who was exactly responsible for what (per the postfilm Q&A, each student was given a few sequences to direct, which was one of the reasons Professor Franco chose the Quixote story, which is episodic in nature).
Perhaps appropriately, given the proximity of Hollywood, the self-consciously arty mannerisms of Tar have here been replaced by a more straightforward desire to entertain, turning the adaptation of a complex bipartite literary work (the second part was published 400 years ago this year) into quite an amusing romp. Though the eight credited screenwriters (also USC students of Franco’s) never manage to turn this tale with a humble beginning into something larger than just an oddball roadtrip-on-horseback/assback movie, the ride’s enjoyable for the most part, as Quixote (a silver-bearded Argenziano) and Sancho Panza (a perfectly cast Sanz) roam the countryside as the master tries to prove that chivalry still exists and rescue the beautiful Dulcinea (Vera Cherny) while his squire tries to keep Quixote out of harm’s — and windmills’ — way.
Since the narrative is so well-known and — perhaps surprisingly, given some of Franco’s other artistic endeavors — the story is stripped of practically all of its metatextual contents, what remains is a pretty straightforward mismatched-buddies narrative. Though there are very few laugh-out-loud moments, there’s plenty of broad yet gentle comedy sprinkled throughout, and it’s a testament to the writers and directors that tonally, the film feels quite of a piece. This also means that Argenziano and Sanz need to keep viewers hooked, which is not much of a problem as the actors play off of one another with infectious brio. Though several women directors and screenwriters are part of the project, the film’s female characters remain flat and clichéd for the most part, though this can arguably be blamed on the source material.
Franco, sporting a bushy mustache that would make Ron Jeremy jealous, shows up in a small role as the prisoner Pasamonte, though like in some of the other features in which he was also heavily involved behind the scenes, such as As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, his performance feels like something of an afterthought, with the multihyphenate opting for a broader and more caricatured style than the two leads, who manage to anchor their performances in a kind of emotional truth despite all their odd and wild antics.
It doesn’t help that the film’s biggest laugh comes when Pasamonte is accused of stealing Panza’s donkey (something that’s directly inspired by Cervantes) and his reply contains a clear reference to Franco’s frequent flirting with the gay community. Though funny, it reminds everyone they’re watching 21st century art phenomenon James Franco, not a minor character in a story set hundreds of years ago. In the directors’ defense, it must have been quite an unusual situation for the students to have to treat their professor who taught them film direction simply as an actor on set.
The story’s set in a vaguely defined past that looks like a cross between California and a vintage Hollywood take on 1600s Spain, courtesy of production designer Angel Herrera and costume designer Jill Paz. The widescreen cinematography by Carmen Emmi, who shot on the Red Epic, is crisp, with rich amber tones in nighttime scenes lit by candles and bonfires and soft greens and earthen tones dominating much of the sun-drenched daytime encounters. For the windmill sequences, CGI is employed that’s adequate within the context of the film’s modest ambitions.
Production companies: Rabbit Bandini, USC School of Cinematic Arts
Cast: Carmen Argenziano, Horatio Sanz, Luis Guzman, James Franco, Lin Shaye, Vera Cherny, Lorena McGregor, Anthony Skordi, Reinaldo Zavarce
Directors: David Beier, Dave Dorsey, Mahin Ibrahim, Austin Kolodney, Will Lowell, Drue Metz, Brandon Somerhalder, Alana Waksman, Jon YonKondy, Xu Zhang
Screenplay: Anthony Twarog, Melanie Ansley, Elizabeth Eccher, Jonathan Maurer, Jamie Napoli, Amy Reedy, Michael Starr, Jordan Trippeer
Producers: Vanessa Pantley, Tarek Tohme
Executive producers: Vince Jolivette, James Franco, Iris Torres
Director of photography: Carmen Emmi
Production designer: Angel Herrera
Costume designer: Jill Paz
Editor: Jordan Ledy
Music: Nathan Matthew David, Jeremy Lamb
Casting: Craig Campobasso
No rating, 83 minutes
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