Legendary Dons' Juan Is No Gift


Don Juan de Marco

directed by Jeremy Leven

starring Johnny Depp, Faye

Dunaway, and Marlon Brando

Jeremy Leven's "Don Juan de Marco" is a dishearteningly monochromatic interpretation of the world's most notorious lover. Johnny Depp, with his penchant for eccentric roles, seems to be an inspired choice to play the mysterious, sensuous young man who appears in the late twentieth century to recount intimate memories of his prolific love life. But as the picture-perfect sunsets flash across the screen, the lovely ladies disrobe, the orchestra hums and the saccharine sentiments fly, it becomes apparent that his Don Juan is just another primetime soap opera rogue.


All Don Juans must suffer the pangs of a thwarted love. As the film opens, Depp is perched atop a billboard, attempting to join his missing love in the afterlife. Enter Marlon Brando as Jack Mickler, a psychiatrist sleepwalking his way to retirement.

After cracking a joke about someone else's weight, he is hoisted up to bring Don Juan down. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship as doctor and lunatic are whisked away to a mental hospital to "cure" the delusions of the young romancer. Within days, Jack is swept into the world of his patient, whom he comes wholeheartedly to believe is truly the legend he claims to be.

As their friendship develops, it becomes unsure who's curing whom. Jack is entranced by Don Juan's tales of seduction, filmed in sunlit soft-core porn scenes with a bevy of scantily-clad beauties in exotic locales.

Brando plays Jack as a passive voyeur, listening intently to Depp's recounting of the amorous exploits as if he is bestowing some machismo title to the younger actor. He even gives Depp his trademark hug and kiss on both cheeks, as if to bring him into the family.

The on-screen relationship between Brando and his younger co-star oddly echoes his appearance in 1990's "The Freshman" with Matthew Broderick, which was touted as Brando's last film. With Broderick happily pursuing a career in Broadway musicals, perhaps Brando felt obligated to come out of retirement and reselect a successor to assume his unique place in American cinema.

A legend herself, Faye Dunaway as Jack's wife, Marilyn, seems to have tapped into a fountain of youth. As Jack's libido and joie de vivre increase via the vicarious thrills of Don Juan's tales, Jack begins to rekindle romance with his startled wife. Dunaway is an uneasy lover, awkward in responding to his advances, but accepts his kisses with faint detachment. Despite their combined monumental talents, Dunaway and Brandc have trouble settling into a credible domestic arrangement. But as botched as their love scenes may be, they are infinitely more interesting than the purple-prose narration of Don Juan's legions of loves.

Dunaway is considerably more relaxed than in recent roles (noteably as Depp's lover in the well-intentioned "Arizona Dream" in 1994). Brando, too, seems content to let the film pass him by, with only a snapshot of him circa "On the Waterfront" to suggest his former power.

Perhaps his sweet tooth does not extend to the syrupy script. Writer and director Leven, a psychotherapist who spent time on the Harvard faculty, was not expecting this acting trinity to descend upon his humble screenplay and is simply unprepared to handle such an awesome burden on his first stint as a director.

Sentiments like, "Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life," make the film at times eerily reminiscent of "Saturday Night Live's" "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handy. 'Don Juan de Marco" kills itself with kitschy sweetness in an effort to create precious moments. And Leven's concept of Don Juan as a modern model of the seducer raises some interesting questions about his understanding of the realities of contemporary sexual promiscuity.

Leven, however, has captured the problems of forming a traditional family in our time. Don Juan has lost his mother and forms a kind of surrogate dysfunctional family with Jack and his wife. His real parents are, of course more exotic. Through his sessions with Jack, we discover that Don Juan's father was an Italian-American "dance king" from Queens, New York who emigrated to Mexico with his son. "Don Juan" isn't smart enough to satirize this colorful background, as "Strictly Ballroom" did so brilliantly. Instead, Don Juan, with his mixed Italian, Spanish, Mexican and American ancestry, is a posterchild for cultural assimilation.

Leven treats his potentially satirical material with a rare light hand when someone refers to the young lover as Casanova. With his fiery temper, Don Juan becomes incensed. Unfortunately, both Leven and Depp take their mission too seriously to create more of these moments.

Depp chooses his words and poses carefully, but manages to be convincing only as a particularly promiscuous fantasy lover with all the depth of a glistening Harlequin-novel cover man. His star-power and glamour nearly vanquish his acting skills in a throwback to his "21 Jump Street" days as a brooding teen heartthrob. The camera, too, is seduced, almost comically drawn ever-closer to his face, even when he tries to hide in the depths of his knit brows during particularly emotional moments.

Though the story of Don Juan as a man with a monumental libido, seems to have an inherent fascination in high and low art, he is ultimately only as complex and interesting as his interpreters make him. Igmar Bergman's "The Devil's Eye" drew us in, contextualizing Don Juan in a play within a movie. Byron's unfinished satire of the Romantic hero endlessly absorbs. Mozart created complex rhythms in music and character. Leven constructs a stock male stud from Hollywood's image repository.