Don Juan Demarcof might have been just a forgettable curio about a young man who claims he’s the world’s greatest lover and the cynical psychiatrist who ends up believing him. Face it, the original script by psychotherapist Jeremy Leven, making his debut as a director, is warmed-over Equus minus the sex with horses and funereal pacing. What jump-starts the film is the casting of Johnny Depp as Don Juan and Marlon Brando as his shrink. They bring a playfully romantic touch to a drama that could have been dead weight in clumsier hands.
Depp’s Don Juan from Queens, N.Y., claims to have seduced 1,500 women. Naturally, the cops think he’s nuts, especially when he climbs a billboard and threatens to kill himself over the loss of his true love, Dona Ana (Geraldine Pail-has). Is Dona Ana merely a centerfold that hangs in the boy’s shabby room? Dr. Jack Mickler (Brando) certainly thinks the boy is delusional when he arrives on the scene to coax him down. “Are you sure this is how Freud started?” Detective Sy Tobias (Richard Sarafian) is asked by the doc as he hoists his bulk on a crane that will lift him 40 feet above street level. The teasing, self-deprecating Brando is a joy. The doc and the detective, eyeing each other’s waistlines, joke about visiting the same bakery.
Jack is not one of Brando’s take-the-money-and-run roles. He appears to be having a ball as he dodges the script’s platitudes and digs into his scenes with Depp. Though the flashbacks that illustrate Don Juan’s story range from coy to cloying, the confrontations between doctor and patient give the film an exhilarating spin as the older man begins to catch the younger one’s passion. Jack’s wife, Marilyn (Faye Dunaway), finds a new randiness in her husband. Hard driving Dunaway is hardly typecasting as a long-suffering hausfrau, and sensitive souls should be warned of her sex scenes with Brando (in bed she climbs on top). “This is going to be good,” he says, clicking off the light.
The movie itself is never as good as it should be, owing to Leven’s lifeless staging. All the vital signs are due to Depp and Brando. Following Edward Scissor-hands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Ed Wood, Depp ranks with the best actors of his generation. Near the end of the film he pierces the heart by revealing the lost boy beneath the macho bravado. It’s an art that Brando mastered in the days of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. If Don Juan DeMarco casts a spell in spite of its flaws, call that a tribute to the talents of two great seducers.