MOVIE REVIEWS : Depp, Brando Take on the Fable of ‘Don Juan’

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In “Don Juan DeMarco,” a young masked man (Johnny Depp) effortlessly seduces a wide-eyed woman he picks up in a swank restaurant and then, proclaiming his sadness at the loss of his one true love, prepares to jump from a billboard to his death.

The police call in veteran psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) to talk the boy down. Jack hospitalizes him and becomes his therapist. In record time, a bond is formed. Jack may start out by humoring this self-proclaimed Don Juan, but he quickly gets pulled into the boy’s fantasy life. After a while he’s not even sure it is a fantasy.

What we have here is another variation on “Equus”--it’s a movie about the drudgery of normality and the romanticism of the deluded. Jack is decent and caring, but he’s burnt-out by the unfeeling bureaucracies of his profession. He disdains the medications that his supervisor (Bob Dishy) tries to force on Don Juan; he buys time--10 days--to allow the boy to persuade him he really is the masked lover, before his colleagues take over.

Writer-director Jeremy Leven--who has never directed a movie before but has worked as a screenwriter, novelist and clinical psychologist--buys into the boy’s fantasy, too. He makes Don Juan a genuine romantic: The nurses swoon all over him and the flashbacks to his purported childhood and young manhood in Mexico are photographed in a syrupy gauze.

In his sort-of Castilian accent, Don Juan may refer seductively to a conquest as a “woooman”--like George Hamilton in “Zorro the Gay Blade”--but there’s no camp in his come-ons.


We’re meant to take him not as a deluded boy in torment but as a liberating spirit--a holy innocent. The movie isn’t about Don Juan’s self-realization but about Jack’s--and, by extension, ours as well. Leven wants us to embrace our fantasies and ditch humdrum normality. As Jack says to his by-the-book colleagues, “We’ve surrendered to the momentum of mediocrity.” (But can we surrender to the mediocrity of this movie?)

In “Don Juan DeMarco,” the young lover is given just enough of a sordid background to make us sympathize with his need to create a new and perfumed life for himself. But mostly he exists apart from any background, real or imagined. He’s the romantic as exotic--he devotes himself to women as a humble servant of amore .


It’s a measure of Leven’s infatuation that, in his movie, the Don Juan myth is prettified. No rake he. This Don Juan doesn’t exploit women, he’s God’s gift to them. He’s a love teacher, and he inspires Jack to romance his own yearning-to-be-loved wife (Faye Dunaway). For us, that’s a plus: The chummy amorousness between Brando and Dunaway is one of the film’s bright spots.

Actually, Brando is pretty sunny all the way through. He’s not really extending himself much here, and Leven doesn’t always protect his actor from unflattering angles. But Brando has a wizardly way of dumping on the role--exposing its dubiousness--and yet having fun with it anyway. He enjoys acting--or at least he enjoys the flippancy of it. (It has been years since Brando has tested himself in a movie; he must not want to.) And his scenes with Depp are curious, tricky little duets: The old pro and the young turk team up.

Depp is rather sweet in portraying Don Juan’s self-delusions, but his performance is hampered by the role. With women, Don Juan is not allowed to show any conflicting emotions; he’s not in conflict with himself either. We don’t get to see the kind of hurt and isolation that this delusional boy would experience, and that’s an injustice to what he’s really going through. (The film argues that medication would destroy him.) His pain is not an issue in the movie because it denies he has any.

For the film to work, we’d have to be in denial, too, and it’s just not magical enough for that.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content. Times guidelines: It includes a sword-fight killing.


‘Don Juan DeMarco’ Marlon Brando: Jack Mickler Johnny Depp: Don Juan DeMarco Faye Dunaway: Marilyn Mickler Bob Dishy: Dr. Paul Showalter A New Line Cinema release of an American Zoetrope production. Director-screenwriter Jeremy Leven. Producers Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs, Patrick Palmer. Executive producers Ruth Vitale, Michael De Luca. Cinematographer Ralf Bode. Editor Tony Gibbs. Costumes Kirsten Everberg. Music Michael Kamen. Production design Sharon Seymour. Set decorator Maggie Martin. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


* In general release throughout Southern California.