Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

In Don Juan DeMarco, Depp plays the title character, a seemingly delusional 20-something who believes he is the direct descendant of Don Juan and dresses like “Zorro” complete with mask and sword. The movie opens with Don Juan seducing one last woman before preparing to sacrifice himself in a duel with his great rival since he can’t have the woman of his dreams, the beautiful Dona Ana. Dr. Jack Mickler an ageing psychiatrist, played by Marlon Brando, is days from retiring when he gets the call to talk down the suicidal Don Juan. Pretending to be Don Juan’s rival’s uncle – Don Octavio DeFlores, Mickler gets Don Juan into a psychiatric hospital where the county gets an order to hold him for assessment. Mickler has 10 days to assess him before they have to decide to commit him or release him. Mickler is forced to try to unravel Don Juan’s incredible tale before the clock runs out on the holding order and his own career.

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco...

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco…

Don Juan DeMarco is a charming film with Depp managing to lose himself in the character of Don Juan, so convincingly that it’s almost as if he’s a time traveller plopped down in the present from some 16th or 17th century romantic fairytale. Even when Dr. Mickler is trying to poke holes in Don Juan’s story pointing out the anachronistic nature of his life growing up in a remote village in Mexico that still embraces duels with swords, Don Juan never wavers in his conviction. His own fantastic story seems less delusional since he acknowledges the reality of the situation that he is being held in a psychiatric hospital and that he accepts that his story seems unbelievable to those around him.

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Don Juan’s charm allows him to win over his attendants male and female alike and infuse everyone around him with a new found zest for life and love, Dr. Mickler included. Mickler’s own romantic life is awakened with his wife (Faye Dunaway) who he begins to see in a new light.

It’s not until more than half way through the movie that Don Juan’s incredible story starts to show some signs of becoming unravelled as his paternal grandmother is found living in Queens begins to fill Dr. Mickler in on the “truth”. At this point both Dr. Mickler and we the audience have bought into Don Juan’s story and don’t want the fantasy to end.

The film does a good balancing act of resolving the central conflict while still allowing the audience and pivotal characters have their cake and eat it too. After all this IS a romantic fantasy and demands a happy ending.

Love wins the day - Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

Love wins the day – Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

I enjoyed the film and the performance of the principle actors Depp, Brando, and Dunaway. One of the reasons I appreciate Depp as an actor is because he has the ability to own a character by completely giving himself over to a character. He becomes the character to the point where the audience only sees the character and not necessarily the actor. A little aside, I had the privilege of seeing Michael Caine introduce “The Quiet American” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002. During his introduction Caine commented that when he watches one of his own performances he always catches glimpses of himself acting, but that his performance as Thomas Folwer in The Quiet American he found that he disappeared as an actor in the role. It is exactly Depp’s ability to become so engrossed and disappear in the role that suits him so well to these “character” roles. Actually, whenever someone describes Depp as a “character” actor I wince a little because it sounds as if they mean it in a demeaning way. Don’t get me wrong there are truly great character actors that serve a specific role in movies that act as pivotal characters, but are meant to be forgettable and meant to blend into the story and scenery. By contrast the characters that Depp so often plays are unique, larger than life personae that form the very heart of the story. There’s only one Edward Scissorhands, only one Capt. Jack Sparrow, and only one Don Juan Demarco. Yes he becomes engrossed in the characters and the characters become larger than life, but “character actor” is not the right way to describe what he does.

So you think you can act? - Two greats square off.

So you think you can act? – Two acting greats square off.

It’s been mentioned that when Depp signed on to play Don Juan DeMarco he did so under the condition that Brando be sought to play the role of Mickler. Whether true or not, Brando screen presence as an actor is still undeniable even at this late stage in his career. From the moment he is on screen he commands your attention. While Faye Dunaway is given little to do other than react to Brando’s attempts to rekindle their love life as a married couple in the film, she too has a presence about her that was previously demonstrated in her pairing with Depp in “Arizona Dream”.

In case you’re keeping score this is Depp’s tenth film, the first in which we see him with earrings, first with ‘funky’ facial hair in the form of a goatee and moustache, and the second film in which he wears a bandanna on his head in at least one scene – the first being a brief scene in Platoon. I guess you could debate the facial hair since Depp did have a pretty good pencil moustache going in Ed Wood.

As far as romantic comedies go it’s a light movie that has its charms, but it’s doubtful it will leave you with any renewed passion for life. It may however leave you with an earworm in the form of Bryan Adam’s title song Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman? which is used throughout the film as incidental music.

I bet you’re humming it right now…

Up next in the tribute rotation is the Jim Jarmusch indie film “Dead Man”.

Arizona Dream (1992)

DVD Cover Image

Arizona Dream (1992) – DVD Cover

Arizona Dream is one of those obscure films from Depp’s repertoire that I wasn’t familiar with until I started down this path of reviewing all his films. Directed by Serbian film maker Emir Kusturica, who is probably best known for Time of the Gypsies (1988), the film is a surreal meandering tale that is comic and tragic by turns.

Arizona Dream, features Depp as Axel Blackmar a young 20-something working as a fisher counter with New York’s Fish and Game department who claims to listen to the fishes dreams.  Axel receives an unexpected visit from his friend Paul (Vincent Gallo), who has been sent by Axel’s Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) to bring him home to Arizona to stand up for him at his wedding to his new bride.

Reluctantly Axel accompanies Paul back to Arizona where Leo tries to convince him to help run his Cadillac dealership. While apprenticing at the dealership, Axel encounters Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her suicidal step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) who’s inheritance has left her independently wealthy. Elaine, a mid-40s widow drunk on life and determined to “sleep with every man under the age of 30”, according to her daughter, becomes involved with Paul and Axel. Grace meanwhile distraught at her mother’s immature behaviour and fascination with Papua New Guinea threatens to kill herself.

Does this bow tie make me look geeky?

Does this bow tie make me look geeky?

A coming-of-age movie narrated by Axel, the film explores the interactions between the various characters and their dreams and fears. While the arc of the story leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion, slow and meandering, there are a lot of good bits in this film and the performances by the actors are solid. Lewis as Leo dials up and down the charm as  required and his chemistry with Depp on screen as his nephew seems genuine. Dunaway plays her character with gusto, never backing down from Elaine’s zest for life regardless of others opinions of her.  Gallo nearly steals the show as wannabe thespian who recites dialogue from Hollywood classics like Wizard of Oz and Godfather II as well as having an irrational fear for the plane chase scene from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest that he acts out more than once in the movie. As for Depp he ranges the spectrum from innocent idealist to smouldering lover in this movie with stops at geeky and dorkry (see pic above with bow tie – not that there’s anything WRONG with bow ties) and while the whiplash between scenes is sometimes a bit much, it’s still mesmerizing watching this movie waiting for something to happen. Even Depp’s hair gets into the act, seemingly having its own ‘look’ from scene to scene. In New York, its classic hat head, while working his Uncle’s dealership its windswept emo, and during the dinner party scenes he had an annoying rooster tail happening that was distracting me.

Depp and Lili Taylor in Arizona Dream

Depp and Lili Taylor in Arizona Dream

Filmed in 1991 this film didn’t see release in North America until 1995 after playing Europe and the film festival circuit in 1992 and 1993. Warner Brothers released it in limited theatres in North America with 20+ minutes cut from the original version which only exists on some of the European DVD releases. While researching this movie, I came across a review that summarized Arizona Dream as a mashup between a Robert Altman and a Gus Van Sant film, which I can totally see.

Uncle Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewise) and Axel (Johnny Depp)

Uncle Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis) and Axel (Johnny Depp)

Arizona Dream is one of those movies that only works if  you’re in the right frame of  mind  to receive it. If you go into it expecting a coherent linear arc with everything neatly tied up in a bow, this isn’t a film that you’re going to enjoy. If you appreciate magic realism, stories that are filled with metaphors about flying and fish, and a plot that meanders like a drunk walking home from the liquor store, then you might have the patience for this film. Personally I found myself somewhere in between these two extremes. Frustrating wanting more coherence and a quicker pace, but fascinated by the characters and their stories.

While I am glad I took the time to watch the film, I don’t think it’ll be on that I will be revisiting    any time soon.

Up next in the Johnny Depp Tribute is 1993 film Benny and Joon, co-starring Mary Stuart Matheson and Adian Quinn as those where-are-they-now actors from the 1990s.