Every voyager of the psyche follows his own route, as Carl Jung would have it. Some (mostly mythical guys with only one name) get on white horses and ride after dragons; some fall in love with themselves, projected onto other people; some just go into therapy. In Jeremy Leven's new film, Don Juan de Marco, though, it's the therapist who makes the trip, and inner searching has never been this entertaining.
Numerous films have been made in recent years that work as metaphors for a Jungian-style search for self. (Jung would say that all films work this way.) Retellings of myths and legends are prominent among them, like the forthcoming King Arthur film starring Sean Connery; other movies, such as 1993's The Sandlot, bring the struggle to face inner fears with outward forms to a more modern, less abstruse level. Rarely, though, is a film as successful as Don Juan in juxtaposing the mythical and the modern.
The film opens with a slow pan of what looks like the accouterments of the great Latin Lover himself. When we see who's putting them on - a modern guy, in 20th-century New York City - we think we know where this movie's going. Either the guy's a scam artist, or he's wacky. But then we see him in action, walking into a restaurant, seducing a woman inside of five minutes, and getting her back before her date arrives, we're not so sure.
This is meant to be Don Juan's swan song, though; he's planning to throw himself off a billboard in despair at being slighted by Dona Ana, "the one whoomann who ever mattered". The man who talks him down is a psychiatrist, Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando), who introduces himself to Don Juan (Johnny Depp) as Don Octavio de Flores. He thinks he's putting on but a momentary persona; he's scheduled to retire in a week and a half, and has no plans to become a Latin aristocrat.
Don Juan's world is an alluring one, though. After having Juan committed to a mental hospital for observation, Mickler starts listening hard to the tales of his client's history - the precocious seduction of another man's wife, the stint as a harem-keeper. You can practically see the analyst-patient relationship crumbling. The hospital's female staff members aren't the only ones to fall under Juan's spell.
Juan's stories, of course, are preposterous. They're the stuff of myth, and writer/director Leven, himself a former psychiatrist, throws in enough of what seem like discrepancies to keep us from buying into Juan's claims. And when Juan's grandmother tells Mickler that "Johnny's" father was not a Mexican plantation owner but in fact Tony, the Dance King of Astoria, we think we finally see the facade falling apart.
It doesn't though, incredibly. "Interesting fantasy," Juan remarks casually in his inimitable Castilian accent. "If it makes her happy, I suppose it is harmless." He even starts to get Mickler believing he is Don Octavio de Flores, at least in a nutty sort of way. But the trick is that he gets us believing it, too. Leven manages to walk this tightrope between ludicrous fantasy and fantastical reality to the point where it's unimportant. In voice-over at the movie's end, Brando makes it quite clear that it doesn't matter whether any of this is plausible or not: Did they live happily ever after? he asks. "Why not?" Why not, indeed.
Arguably, the protagonist here is not Don Juan at all, but Don Octavio de Mickler. Under the spiritual ministrations of his masked patient, Mickler manages to shun all sorts of masks of his own. He comes to realize that, though his internal fires aren't exactly raising sirens, neither are they half so dead as he had suspected. And in true Jungian form, he gets to know and appreciate his Mrs. Mickler (Faye Dunaway) better in the process - not only for herself, but for what she represents in him.
Of course, none of this would work in deadly earnest, and Leven's light, comedic touch serves here in fine juxtaposition with his insight. This ain't slapstick, mind you - Brando doesn't do slapstick, and thanks be for that. It is funny, though. The somber straight lines ("I need to find out who you are.") fade nicely into the general jousting banter among the characters, carried off ably by the players. Brando is remarkably sprightly as the psychiatrist, given the physical and thespian gravity that he's adopted over the years. And his repartee with both Depp and Dunaway makes it apparent that he enjoyed himself here. Who says metaphorical searches for self have to be all thorn castles and dragons?
Depp likewise manages to balance the contradictory demands of his character. He plays Don Juan just flamboyantly enough to be a little larger than life, but manages to remain earthy at the same time. Few actors have played as many career-stultifyingly distinctive characters as Depp has without succumbing to typecast. Edward Scissorhands (another movie about which Jung would've said "I told you so") had the potential to ruin Depp for any movie without a Danny Elfman soundtrack. But to Depp's credit, it's easy to forget who's playing Don Juan in this film. This is, of course, the whole point of being an actor. Unfortunately, it's also alarmingly rare.
Francis Ford Coppola produced Don Juan de Marco - his third film in a row, following Dracula and Frankenstein, to try to adapt a Romantic hero of mythic proportions to the medium of modern film. Don Juan is the most successful of the three, possibly because it doesn't try to toy with all the Gothic trappings of its source. Its relative success suggests that when you choose a 19th-century character as your subject, you had better go all the way with the makeover, or else just leave the character in his natural habitat.
Don Juan's makeover works (except for the dreadful Bryan Adams ditty that plays over the closing credits). Juan's flair - both romantic and Romantic - is perhaps what we need heading into the 21st century. We are, the movie suggests, losing touch with our collective erotic, sensual selves - burying them under a neurosis-heap of propriety and fear. Don Juan de Marco won't effect any brilliant strides toward correcting that problem, but it is refreshing.