20 Movies: Don Juan DeMarco (1994)

As the muddle below that pretends to be a review indicates, I’m all at sea on this one. I love the movie but my head keeps going, “This is ain’t so great.” I’ve decided I like it because 1) I love Johnny Depp’s performance and, 2) there are some really great lines (that wouldn’t work without Depp’s delivery). I have a problem with it because Brando is so damn Brando.

Still, I really love this movie.

Don Juan DeMarco (1994)
directed by Jeremy Leven

“There are only four questions of value in life, Don Octavio. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: only love.”
— Don Juan DeMarco —

This movie is either a brilliant failure or a flawed success. I’m not sure which. As much as I like Don Juan DeMarco, it’s one weird little film. It’s not weird in the sense of bizarre but in the odd mix of flaws and virtues. Such as:

  • It’s wildly romantic, in an over-the-top kind of way, yet it’s appropriate for its subject, romantic love.
  • Because of its romanticism, the writing is often lyrical and sentimental – too much so, you would think, yet it isn’t and contains some marvelous lines.
  • Johnny Depp gives one of my favourite performances as the young man who believes he is Don Juan. This really is his film.
  • Marlon Brando gives a performance that is peculiar in that in some scenes he is dead on and others he seems asleep at the wheel. It’s definitely a Brando interpretation with all that is puzzling about that.
  • Faye Dunaway plays a supporting role yet, while having less screen time, manages to have some of the most poignant scenes and, frankly, seems to spark Brando to life. His best scenes are with her. She seems to do for Brando what Don Juan does for Dr. Mickler: wake him up.
  • Some of the flashback scenes are a bit tedious, less for what they are than for what they are not. The story is in the relationship between Dr. Mickler (Marlon Brando) and Don Juan (Johnny Depp). When they move from that to what is essentially exposition, the story sags somewhat. (Admittedly, however, I didn’t think this when I first saw the movie.)

So I don’t know what to think. However, I do know I love the movie. Heaven knows I’ve watched it enough times. I think when I saw it the first time it was that romantic, lyrical language that first hooked me. The movie is also funny, in an understated way (as it’s intended to be).

The main problem with the movie is Brando. It’s a very uneven performance. The younger Brando would have blown this Brando off the screen. As it is, Johnny Depp blows him off the screen. And this is a big problem because Dr. Mickler is at the heart of the movie. He has been sleeping for years; Don Juan wakes him up.

“What is this thing that happens with age? Why does everyone want to pervert love and suck it bone dry of all its glory? Why do you bother to call it love anymore?”
— Don Juan DeMarco —

Mickler agrees and realizes that, without Don Juan’s world, he can’t “breathe,” as Don Juan puts it.

The movie is a romantic fantasy although writer/director Jeremy Leven is careful to walk between reality and fantasy in order to let it be read either way: Don Juan could be Don Juan or he could just be a deluded kid. But as Kurt Vonnegut would put it, you are what you pretend to be. So fantasy or not, Don Juan is Don Juan as long as he believes it.

Just as Dr. Mickler is Don Octavio DeFlores, should he choose to believe it. As Don Juan says to one of the psychologists when he asks why Don Juan believes Dr. Mickler is Don Octavio, “Why do you think Don Octavio del Flores is Dr. Mickler?”

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