Don Juan DeMarco: Romantic Fable Starring Brando, Depp, and Dunaway

Iconoclastic acting of high order by three eccentric performers, Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway, is the most memorable–and marketable–dimension of Don Juan DeMarco, a romantic fable whose unique charm outweighs its small-scale, rather slight narrative.

Dream cast alone should carry this inconsequential, but immensely likeable, two-generational comedy among both mature and younger viewers for the next month or so, until summer’s bigger guns begin to roar.

Making his directorial debut, Jeremy Leven (better known as a novelist) works out a modernist variation of the mythic Don Juan, a legendary figure that has occupied Western imagination in literature, drama and opera. In the new version, inspired by Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Depp is cast as the world’s greatest lover, boasting to his record the seduction of one thousand women. However, devastated and distraught by the recent loss of his one true love, and convinced there’s no reason for him to go on living, he’s determined to take his life.

Fable begins with the young Don Juan DeMarco, masked and cloaked in a cap, standing atop a billboard ready to jump. Certain they’re dealing with a lunatic, the police summons veteran psychiatrist, Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando), who miraculously succeeds in changing the desperado’s mind. Despite vast differences in background and age, the two men immediately hit it off, establishing some kind of a spiritual connection.

At first, the well-respected Mickler seems to be burnt-out, anxiously awaiting his retirement. But when Don Juan is assigned to another colleague, he aggressively lobbies to get the troubled man under his wings. With extra persuasion, Mickler is given 10 days to diagnose his patient and recommend proper treatment.

The episodic narrative consists of a one-to-one sessions between doctor and patient, with Don Juan recounting in graphic detail his adventurous odyssey and romantic escapades in Mexico. Though initially suspicious, Mickler soon finds himself embracing his delusional patient’s romantic world-view. Forced to examine the importance of love and passion in his own life, he rekindles the spark long lost in his marriage to Marilyn (Faye Dunaway). In a role reversal, Don Juan exerts great impact on his aging doctor, who undergoes both personal and professional renewal.

Writer Leven supports the liberal philosophy that it’s O.K., and sometimes even preferable, not being “normal”–at least as labeled by mainstream society. In its sermons for de-institutionalization and greater tolerance for deviant behavior, pic’s message resembles that of Rain Man and Benny & Joon, which also starred Depp as an innocent outcast.

Don Juan DeMarco isn’t particularly well-directed: story often drags and the transition from one bizarre tale to another (all of which are narrated and presented in flashbacks) is at times rough. Happily, the richly textured dialogue sustains interest beyond the schematic suspense of whether or not Don Juan will be hospitalized and medically treated. Ultimately, even the question of authenticity–whether Don Juan is telling the truth–becomes inconsequential.

The film’s greatest asset is its glorious acting, with special accolades for Brando, who here renders yet another magnificent “comeback” performance. Despite a huge frame, Brando is extremely light on his feet, playing in an uncharacteristically relaxed, laid back manner. With a devilish smile on his face and a rose in his hand, his romantic scenes with Dunaway, in which they rediscover sexual fervor in their long stale marriage, are pure gold.

Perfectly cast in a role that brings to mind Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, and Ed Wood, heavily-accented Depp is delightfully fetching as a young Casanova, a naive boy-man who finds real beauty in every woman he encounters. After a long career of playing high-strung, intense women, the still beautiful Dunaway is also a standout as Mickler’s soft and sensitive wife.

Sporadically, Don Juan DeMarco’s visual style and quirky, lyrical tone achieve the spell of magical realism, as evident in such erotic films as Like Water for Chocolate.