Don Juan de Marco
directed by Jeremy Leven
(New Line Cinema, 1995)

Don Juan de Marco is either a kid from Queens or the reincarnation of the world's greatest lover.

John Mickler is either a burned-out psychiatrist at Woodhaven State Hospital or 17th-century nobleman Don Octavio de Flores.

Take all the possible permutations and combinations resulting from the unexpected collision of these four personalities and you get Don Juan de Marco, an airy fantasy written and directed by Jeremy Leven and brought to life by Johnny Depp (Don Juan) and a much-restrained Marlon Brando (Mickler).

The story line is slim, and stacked with stock situations.

De Marco, accomplished lover, has decided to kill himself because he cannot have the love of his life, who is either the beautiful Dona Julia or a girlie magazine centerfold, depending on your point of view.

He's rescued by Mickler, posing as Don Octavio for the ostensible purpose of talking de Marco down from his billboard. But once they reach the state hospital -- or Mickler's villa, depending on your point of view -- complications set in.

Mickler's boss (Bob Dishy) wants to take the case away from Mickler, who's scheduled to retire in 10 days, which is also how long the hospital can observe de Marco before it must release him or recommend commitment.

The boss also wants to medicate de Marco post haste. But Mickler stalls, insisting he needs to be able to plumb the depths of de Marco's delusions.

But is he plumbing them or participating in them? It all depends, again, on your point of view.

Don Juan de Marco is tricky artifice, turning on a number of romantic cliches, most of them brought to life in breathtaking color in de Marco's fantasies, as narrated during his therapy sessions.

It also revisits many of the Snake Pit stereotypes: commitment-minded staffs, individuals fighting the system and, above all, the possibility that we are simply wrong about who is mentally ill.

And it brings us face to face with a burned-out psychiatrist who just might need his patient's fantasies more than the patient needs a shrink.

Fortunately, Leven is skillful enough to avoid what might have been simply an interesting failure.

Early on he distinguishes himself with his gifts for verbal and visual understatement -- most notable in a flashback recounting how de Marco's mother tried to save the youth's soul by dedicating his life to the church.

The looks on the faces of the nuns at the chancel rail tell us there's going to be no saving this lad from the world of the flesh. Nor should there be.

Just as importantly, Leven elicits from Depp and Brando the kinds of performances that overshadow weaknesses in the script.

Every time Don Juan comes close to bogging down -- usually at a staff meeting -- Leven finds a way to relaunch it, often using de Marco's tales of his glorious past, real or imagined, as the launch pad.

Similarly, it builds up a full head of steam every time Mickler takes de Marco's playfulness home to his wife of 32 years (Faye Dunaway). The popcorn in bed scene is enough to make you lose your own popcorn.

It's possible that Don Juan de Marco tries to take in too much ground, or that it's a stroll across quicksand that almost makes it.

Its attempts at being verbally profound -- "We have surrendered our lives to the momentum of mediocrity" -- often come up short. And outside of de Marco and Mickler, none of the characters are what you'd call intriguing.

But if you love that story that's just a little bit different, if you're willing to accept the idea that a little delusion can go a long way to making our lives better, then Don Juan de Marco could be the movie you're looking for.

It all depends -- of course -- on your point of view.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



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