remembering the overlooked and underrated

Don Juan DeMarco (1994)

Cape vs. Denim: The Neverending Battle

One man is a burnt out psychiatrist; the other man believes he is the greatest lover the world has ever known. Don Juan DeMarco, written and directed by Jeremy Leven, stars Johnny Depp (age 31, playing a 21-year-old) and Marlon Brando (age 70, as a man wearing a lot of make-up). Can you guess which of them is playing Don Juan?

Sadly, it is not Brando. I cannot help but imagine what a stranger, funnier, more interesting film this might be if the casting was reversed. (An overweight, masked, lumbering Don Juan? Yes please.) But it is not so. Depp is too young to be convincing as a psychiatrist, but his pretty face is more than enough to persuade us that no woman is immune to his charm. Brando’s charm, however, takes a little longer to become apparent—but appear it does.

The movie, set in the Bronx, is about what happens when Don Juan, after a failed suicide attempt, is admitted to a psychiatric ward. Brando is Dr. Jack Mickler, a psychiatrist due to retire in a scant 10 days, but who is determined to cure the disturbed young Don Juan before his job is over. As he and Don Juan talk, Dr. Mickler finds himself increasingly captivated by the charismatic young man’s unsurpassed romanticism. In fact, as Don Juan tells his life story (one of passion, vengeance, and absurdity, of course), the good doctor finds himself questioning his own life and even makes the surprising discovery that after decades of marriage, he is still madly in love with his wife (a vibrant Faye Dunaway).

Is the kid crazy? Delusional? It doesn’t matter. This is the sort of movie in which a quirky character teaches others valuable life lessons. You know that much within ten minutes, if not sooner. As far as story goes, Don Juan DeMarco offers little you haven’t already seen before. Despite that, it is charming and, on occasion, genuinely sensual. Depp is never anything less than sincere, and if his performance is rather monotonous, it’s only because the script doesn’t give him much from which to work.

The scenes between Brando and Dunaway are among the movie’s best. Both actors have any easy rapport and a playfulness about them that makes you wish the film spent a little more time with them and a lot less trudging through Don Juan’s lengthy personal history. It is in these scenes with the married couple that we see Brando’s charm, his self-deprecation, his strange innocence.  Is it a great performance? No; the script isn’t strong enough for it to be great. Is Brando shot mostly above the waist, to encourage the audience to forget his sizable girth? Yes. The man is big. And while that might be disconcerting or even distracting for many, I find myself only wondering: why did no one ever cast him as Shakespeare’s John Falstaff? It’s a role that is bigger than life, much like Don Juan. It’s a role that Orson Welles, another icon (and big man), tackled in Chimes at Midnight (1965). Imagine the complexity, the sadness, the humor, the fun that Brando might have brought to such a role! But I digress. Marlon Brando’s final roles were largely supporting ones. Don Juan DeMarco, despite its many shortcomings, is a reminder of what might have been, had Hollywood only been interested, and had Brando only cared.

Running time: 97 minutes

Rated PG-13

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