Don Juan DeMarco Charming and Witty Fun
By Kristin Battestella
Seriously, I think Netflix only has one copy of certain films, and they seem to be all the ones in my queue. Fittingly, I held onto the 1995 sappy Johnny Depp comedy Don Juan DeMarco for an entire week just to soften the blow of what felt like a two year wait.
Despite bedding thousands of women-1,503 to be exact- 21 year old Don Juan DeMarco (Depp) has been rejected by his one true love and wishes to end his life honorably. He goes to the top of a New York building where psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) talks Don Juan down. Now that he is on a 10-day psychiatric hold, the debonair Don Juan must prove to Jack that he is not delusional over a masked centerfold and a reading of Lord Byron’s tale before the institution’s higher ups insist upon medicating him into monotony. Even considering the absurd account of Don Juan’s tale, Jack warms to this last patient before retirement and is inspired to liven up his contented marriage. Mrs. Mickler (Faye Dunaway), however, asks her husband one critical question- who is Don Juan really?
Humorous themes of unexpected dreams and romance aren’t the typical subject matter from producer Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather); but this wry comedy written and directed Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) has plenty of mature debates on age, love, state of mind, and well, whimsy. This is not an outright comedy like the slapstick or gross out we expect today, but it is not so overly romantic to drive away folks like me who usually can’t take a rom com. There’s enough depth here beyond the Zorro jokes and possible drool- but with material such as this, one can’t get too heavy a la Good Will Hunting, either. Don Juan DeMarco finds a smart balance by being able to laugh at itself with fun dialogue and a lighthearted internal self-reverence. Multi-level parallel storylines between Don Juan and Jack reflect just how much Don Juan’s biased account touches his doctor. Of course, it is all totally over the top and ridiculous but a charming reflection and exploration nonetheless.
I confess I was swoony over Johnny Depp…once. Cry Baby, anyone? The Pirates of the Caribbean star shows the same fun and flair here in another fine example of perfect casting. Depp swaggers with a believable Spanish accent and delightful cavalier style- his Don Juan is truly a character who inspires everyone he encounters for the better. He is so full of it, totally, yet he is so good at what he does all the same. Don Juan’s sexual wisdom and philosophies of women and love are absurd while also making perfect sense. Perhaps it is just that we don’t often speak of such truths- or that the wit comes with a contrastingly stupid Zorro like getup- but it all works. It’s also amusing how Don Juan seems to charm both men and women- pleasing to see how all walks can be touched by such sentiments and good-natured love. Audiences can read into these mask motifs as well in theorizing on who we are and how we love. Which is really the mask that Don Juan wears? If we do fool ourselves into believing something we are not and that helps other people or at the very least doesn’t harm anyone, who’s to say it is a delusion? Don Juan thinks looking at life for what it is just uncreative! Obviously, his issues are revealed during the course of his tale, and we see more and more evidence of how unlikely his reality is. Real life, however, is beside the point in Don Juan DeMarco.
Though I like Depp well enough, outside of The Godfather, I often find myself unimpressed with Marlon Brando. Seriously, he looks like hell here (though not as bad as The Island of Doctor Moreau, ugh) - yet for me, this is one of his most charming and lovely performances. He bemusingly plays along with Don Juan’s delusions in fun, faux Don-ness. Maybe it’s meant to be Spanish in flair, but we of course think a little Corleone when Jack puts on some mocking zest. He’s a retiring psychiatrist who has seen better days indeed. His wit, however, matches Don Juan’s fluff perfectly- interrupting DeMarco’s tale of how women should be delicately touched to abruptly ask if Don Juan is Mexican, Spanish, or Italian. Brando’s great in going from stuffy old man to living vicariously through Don Juan. Despite knowing the preposterousness of his patient, seeing through all Don Juan’s plot holes, and giving clinical diagnosis on the delusions, Jack is still no less touched, even increasing skeptical about what the truth really means. Is it better to burn so brightly and passionately for a shorter time or wash up with mediocrity and retire to boredom? Despite his askew view, Don Juan sees through the masks that Jack has spent his life wearing. Even with all the psychological mystery presented by Depp, Don Juan DeMarco is just as much about the revelations for Jack, too.
Amid all this testosterone and speculation on the 1,503 conquests, Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, Mommie Dearest) is breathtaking as the would-be old and washed up Marilyn Mickler. She’s beautiful and endearing to all but Jack and herself- routine settled into their house a long time ago and early on in Don Juan DeMarco, it shows. It’s great to see Marilyn blossom and be touched by Don Juan’s influence on Jack, and Dunaway is the perfect onscreen match to Brando. She’s coming into a vibrancy and vitality as a sexy and confident middle-aged woman. Today a film like this would be made with a 35-year-old questioning love and age and it would beat everyone over the head with exactly what it is trying to say. Only that over and obvious hand would be given to the viewer- with no room for growth and inspiration. Indeed, as Don Juan says, how boring and uncreative would that be? Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall) is also lovely as Don Juan’s mother Dona Inez- the perfectly ideal senorita as expected, and Talisa Soto (License to Kill, Mortal Kombat) is beautiful of course as lady love Dona Julia. Look also for a quick appearance by the late pop star Selena as well.
Don Juan DeMarco may be hampered by some iffy mid nineties style in the women’s fashions and set decor, but the made to look Mexico locales and great beach scenery fit the bill. Perhaps the Spanish uses and flavors might be a bit stereotypical, but this is an ideal flashback with unreliable narration from Don Juan- it’s all wistful and in good fun. The goofy sultan’s harem scenes look the proper whimsy as well. There is some brief nudity as expected in such a seemingly steamy show. However, the clean cut sex scenes are tame compared to stuff today. That being set, the photography is no less intimate and personal and yet funny thanks to appropriately placed music cues. Yes, we were all sick of Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” theme from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that was everywhere back in the day. Thankfully, the scoring here and Don Juan DeMarco’s lovely string based “Have You Every Really Loved a Woman?” signature song still rings true with elements of timelessness and beauty. Actually, I have the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack- I found it second hand cheap and listen to it quite often. Come on, you know you love that guitar rift! Sing it with me! The music is classical when needed, pop when required, carries a touch of Latin flavor, and yet is decidedly cross-cultural. It’s also lovely to hear some of the lyrics in both English and Spanish, with different arrangements and instrumental versions of the tune underlying the film. Seeing the Bryan Adams music video included on the Don Juan DeMarco DVD as one of the few features was nice, too- although Adams in the Zorro mask has most definitely not stood the test of time!
Though charming, Don Juan DeMarco may be a little too mature for younger Depp fans thanks to the swoon elements and satisfaction of a woman motifs- a woman is like a musical instrument to be coaxed and all that. I’m not really sure why this movie seems somewhat unloved. Someone at Netflix is clearly watching anyway! There is more class, wit, and delight here than in the modern repetitive romantic comedies for sure Lady Depp fans can absolutely delight here, and those looking for more whimsy and complexity can find it in the elder stars as well. Suspend your disbelief, let go, and enrich yourself with Don Juan DeMarco.