Iconoclastic acting of a high order by three eccentric performers, Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway, is the most memorable — and marketable — dimension of “Don Juan De Marco,” a romantic fable whose unique charm outweighs its small-scale, rather slight narrative. Dream cast alone should carry this inconsequential but immensely likable 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 who has occupied the 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 of the seduction of 1,000 women. But, 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 summon veteran psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Brando), who miraculously succeeds in changing the desperado’s mind. Despite vast differences in background and age, the two men hit it off, establishing some kind of 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, heaggressively lobbies to get the troubled man under his wing. With extra persuasion, Mickler is given the 10 days before he retires to diagnose his patient and recommend proper treatment.
The episodic narrative consists of 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 (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 OK, and sometimes even preferable, not to be normal — at least as defined by mainstream society. In its sermons for deinstitutionalization and greater tolerance of deviant behavior , pic promotes a message resembling those of “Rain Man” and “Benny & Joon”; latter pic also starred Depp as innocent outcast.
“Don Juan DeMarco” isn’t particularly well directed; the story often drags and the transition from one bizarre tale to another (all of which are narrated and presented in flashback) is at times rough. Happily, the richly textured dialogue sustains interest beyond the schematic suspense of whether Don Juan will be hospitalized and medically treated. Ultimately, even the question of authenticity — whether Don Juan is telling the truth about his past — becomes inconsequential.
The film’s greatest asset is its glorious acting, with special accolades to Brando, who here delivers 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 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 outstanding 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.”