People always took him seriously as an actor, even while his stock in trade was shaping up to be odd characters in movies of fantasy and whimsy, like Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, and later Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s massive franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
In “Don Juan DeMarco,” Depp plays an eccentric young man who’s convinced that he’s the world’s greatest lover. Marlon Brando plays the psychiatrist assigned to divest him of his delusions. The results are hysterical.
‘Now I Must Die’As the film opens, a young man in a Zorro mask, cape, and fencing sword has climbed to the top of a billboard, about to jump to his death. The cops call in Dr. Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) to talk him down from the ledge. Mickler goes up in a cherry picker to the top of the billboard. When the psychiatrist is asked his identity by the potential jumper (who himself claims to be the real Don Juan), Mickler decides to play along and improvises, “I am… Don… umm… Octavio… de Flores.”
Young Mr. Don Juan is promptly hustled off to a mental asylum. However, his presence very soon has all the nurses in a romantic tizzy and absconding with more Valium than the patients are taking.
Mickler, burned-out as he is, and ready to retire, is intrigued by the young man’s serious demeanor, sincerity, and by the ring of truth and wisdom underlying his outrageous claims and statements. He asks his reluctant supervisor for 10 days to evaluate the young man.
Don Juan regales Dr. “de Flores” with fantastical stories about his adventures and vast history of female conquests. Mickler listens intently. The reason, it turns out, that Don Juan was about to jump to his death was because, while he had successfully seduced in excess of 1,000 women, he could not win the woman of his dreams, the beautiful Doña Julia (Talisa Soto)—the one whom, when he looked into her eyes, he could see his unborn children there. And so life was therefore no longer worth living.
The stories, told in flashback, become ever more fantastical—there’s a Mexican hacienda! His father dies in a sword duel! There’s a desert island called Eros, with yet another true love, and an Arabian seraglio with thousands of women!
“Every woman is a mystery to be solved,'‘ instructs the young Don Juan. He explains how, at age 10, he first saw a woman standing at an open window one moonlit night and noticed the way her clothes “followed and caressed the curves of her body, as if on a cushion of air.” It was at this moment, “I learned how a woman is to be touched.’’
Depp plays it all completely straight-faced, and soon Dr. Mickler is so fired up that he rushes home to romance his wife (Faye Dunaway) and their stale marriage with flowers (he is after all Don Octavio de Flores), jewelry, champagne, and a mariachi band.
Director Jeremy LevenJeremy Leven, a novelist who once made his living as a clinical psychiatrist, wrote and directed this impressive debut, and having scored a hat trick of three powerhouse leads, delivered a hilarious comedy that’s remarkably believable and unpredictable. Depp agreed to work with Leven on condition that his hero, Marlon Brando, be his co-star.
“Don Juan DeMarco” is, of course, a variation on the old theme of the shrink who learns from his patient, like “Awakenings.” It’s also a celebration of romance, poetry, love, and adventure. Its fragile illusion wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, of course, but Depp—who at the time had evolved as America’s most unpredictable and interesting young star—read all his lines with complete sincerity and not a hint of camp (which is really the most powerful and effective way to play most kinds of comedy).
In these times of political correctness, the concept and stereotype of the hot-blooded Latin lover (as represented by, say, Valentino) has become an endangered species. Which is an excellent reason in and of itself to watch Depp try on Valentino’s mantle. The other reason is that you will laugh yourself silly. Or at least find the proceedings highly amusing.
Ultimately, though, the inspiration that underlies the whole film is the magic of discovering the sublime in the superficial by dedicating one’s life to living perfectly in the moment. Which is the reason Dr. Mickler chose to put his retirement on hold; he senses a new lease on life as a present of working with the Mexican Don Juan. The present of living fully in the present.