Johnny Depp has weirdly skewed priorities. Away from the cameras, his life blazes with high drama—demolishing hotel rooms, squabbling with actress and model squeezes, managing a druggy den for Tinseltown’s braterati. But onscreen, he’s a Holy Innocent bathed in moonbeams and sprinkled with pixie dust—misunderstood, razor-digited Edward Scissorhands; smooth-faced, orphaned Cry-Baby; Buster Keatonish misfit Benny; sweet-spirited, small-town eccentric Gilbert Grape; beatific, sanitized Ed Wood. Depp has an affinity for these outcast mooncalf roles, but the sheer bulk of them is getting rather fatiguing. (Suggested opening-night buffet for a Depp retrospective: angel food cake, cotton candy, passionfruit yogurt, Fruitopia Citrus Consciousness.)
Depp’s at it again in Don Juan DeMarco, playing a 21-year-old schizo who believes he’s the world’s greatest lover. Rescued from a suicide attempt by Dr. Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando), a psychiatrist on the eve of retirement, the young man recounts his romantic escapades in Mexico and the Middle East, attempting to convince the clinician that he’s not delusional. These extravagant tales of passion and adventure stir the burned-out Mickler’s imagination, revivifying his 30-year marriage to wife Marilyn (Faye Dunaway).
Writer/director Jeremy Leven’s screenplay, as thin and distinctive as a tortilla, is an inverted, happy-face reworking of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, that pretentious, insanely overrated ’70s play about a shrink who, in the course of treating a disturbed youth arrested for blinding horses, confronts his own spiritual vacuity. Material this precious and schematic demands a light touch and a shimmering visual style, neither of which Leven, making his feature debut, can provide. The narrative plods to its inevitable, feel-good resolution without rhythm or nuance, embalmed by Leven’s cinematically illiterate direction. A graceful filmmaker with a flair for the fantastic—Vincente Minnelli, or maybe Blake Edwards in top form—might have been able to sustain the mood of this whimsical comic fable, but Leven’s eyesore images—flat compositions, blotchy color, unflattering close-ups, flashbacks congealed in oleaginous yellow light—only emphasize his banal dialogue and fraudulent romanticism.
The cast supplies the film’s few, fleeting satisfactions. With his greasy pageboy, scraggly goatee, Cisco Kid accent, and Lone Ranger/Zorro costume, Depp brings his customary sweetness to the title role. It’s difficult to imagine what challenge remains for him in yet another recycling of this performance, but nobody does it better, and his climactic, confessional monologue is movingly rendered—the only noteworthy moment in the movie.
Like the character he portrays, Brando is unexpectedly re-energized in his first fully engaged performance since Last Tango in Paris more than 20 years ago. Considering the highly publicized wreckage of his personal life, perhaps acting is all he has left. At the point in his career when he should be playing Lear or, at least, Big Daddy, it’s rather pitiful to find him committing himself to such a shoddy, featherweight role, but nonetheless reassuring to see that he’s still got the goods. True, he’s jaw-droppingly obese—Leven intro duces Mickler with a fat joke to diffuse audience shock—but his performance is generous and lighthearted. (Somebody should have talked him out of that unsightly hair-rinse, a hue that could be charitably described as lemon chiffon.) Dunaway’s role restricts her to a few anxious frowns and loving smiles, but despite what appear to be some creepy surgical alterations, she’s suitably decorative. There’s a moment of alarm in her bedroom scene with the aroused Brando—the missionary position would surely smash her as flat as the screenplay—but otherwise they appear to enjoy each other’s company and make an endearing couple.
With its desperate, puppylike eagerness to please, Don Juan DeMarco is the sort of “life-affirming” movie that leaves you feeling vaguely suicidal. When one recalls the ambitious, artistic projects that used to attract Brando and Francis Ford Coppola, one of the film’s three producers, it’s hard not to shed a few tears for the present state of our century’s most dynamic art form.
Any 60 seconds of Window to Paris contain more wit, thematic substance, and cinematic know-how than all 90 minutes of Don Juan DeMarco. If anything, Yuri Mamin’s comic fantasy is overburdened with sight gags, stylistic tricks, and social and political observations. Ingenious and energetic, it’s sometimes too rambunctious for its own good.
The director and co-writer Arkadi Tigai center their screenplay on a provocative narrative conceit. Nikolai (Serguei Dontsov), a free-spirited music teacher, obtains a room in a St. Petersburg communal apartment shared by music factory workers and a deposed, bitter Party boss. One drunken evening, Nikolai and his flatmates discover that the wardrobe in his room contains a secret exit to a rooftop. Once outside, they find that they are in Paris. Fading handwriting on Nikolai’s wallpaper indicates that the window will close in less than two weeks, during which these citizens of “a miserable, bankrupt country” revel in the material pleasures and cultural mysteries of the West.
Mamin rings every possible change on this bizarre gimmick, contrasting the values, cuisines, languages, manners, and values of East and West. The workers run amuck, devising moneymaking schemes to acquire everything from gourmet food to a red Citroën. Nikolai becomes involved with Nicole (Agnes Soral), a trendy, hot-tempered taxidermist outraged that her rooftop has suddenly become an egress for rowdy Russians. At one point, Nicole passes through the window to find herself stranded and penniless in the grim streets of St. Petersburg. At another, Nikolai takes his young students on an “outing” to Paris where, having experienced the beauty and freedom of the City of Light, they want to remain. Although all the characters are back where they began by the fadeout, a hopeful final shot promises the opening of a new window.
A prominently displayed shopping bag with a “Tati” logo tips viewers off to one of Mamin’s inspirations—specifically, Jacques Tati’s sublime Playtime, in which Paris is explored and reborn through the eyes of a busload of American tourists. An even stronger, though unacknowledged, source is Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro, another movie about an outsider, an irrepressible young country girl, who turns Paris upside down. Like Zazie, Window to Paris is so frenetically paced, so crammed with elaborate, sometimes questionably timed visual jokes that it constantly threatens to spin out of control and finally becomes rather grating. But the vignettes that score are exhilarating, particularly the sequences in the craven business high school where Nikolai teaches—the walls are plastered with blowups of international bank notes—and pipes on a flute to charm his beauty-starved students. And there’s a strange, poetic sequence in which an enraged St. Petersburg street person kick-boxes a telephone booth to smithereens. In an era when movies have run dry of invention, the exhausting, cheerfully coarse Window to Paris is a welcome arrival.
Given the present tidal wave of homophobia, with the religious right scapegoating gays, and bigots like Pat Buchanan and Robert Dornan eyeing the presidency, I have mixed feelings about dismissing The Sum of Us, a well-intentioned but clumsily manipulative Australian comedy-drama. Strong performances illuminate this screen adaptation of David Stevens’ play, but cheesy plot twists and an excess of special pleading spoil what could have been an affecting story about loneliness and tolerance.
Harry Mitchell (Jack Thompson) and his son Jeff (Russell Crowe) live together in gruff, odd-couple affection. Both are lovelorn. A widower, Harry seeks romance through a computer dating service. Jeff, a gay, unconfident plumber, haunts the bars hoping to find a lifemate. Harry accepts his son’s sexuality and encourages Jeff’s pursuit of Greg (John Polson), a gardener forced to hide his sexual preference from his narrow-minded father. In fact, Harry proves to be too accommodating; his blatant matchmaking wrecks Jeff’s first date with Greg.
The first half of the movie is pure coitus interruptus sitcom—a gender and generational update of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Harry’s determination to see that his son gets laid and coupled backfires, but his own search for love proves to be more fruitful. He meets and gallantly courts Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), a lonely mother abandoned by her husband. At this point, the film plunges into contrived melodrama. After learning that Jeff is gay, Joyce inexplicably abandons Harry, a rejection that precipitates a Terms of Endearment medical crisis. But the movie ends optimistically, as all movies must these days, with the promise that Jeff’s amatory quest will soon be fulfilled.
Stevens, who adapted his play for the screen, is a stranger to subtlety. His overtly explicit dialogue billboards his hackneyed thematic concerns above the characters’ heads in comic-strip balloons. Love, we are repeatedly informed, “is the greatest adventure of all.” “Our children,” Harry reminds us, lest we’ve forgotten, “are only the sum of us.” Many of these truisms are conveyed through the most outmoded (and annoying) of dramatic devices—asides addressed to the camera, accompanied by mugging and conspiratorial winks. Stevens’ rejection of Playwriting 101’s first rule—show, don’t tell—overwhelms his real gift for devising small, telling, nondidactic moments.The father-and-son mealtime exchanges sparkle with banter/bicker verisimilitude, and when these two lonely, horny men discuss masturbation, the dialogue finally rings true.
Stevens’ broadly drawn characters hint at hidden motivations he fails to recognize or is unwilling to explore. Harry’s embrace of Jeff’s homosexuality seems, at times, excessively enthusiastic; the father’s obsession with crotches, bums, and gay porno magazines, coupled with his mother’s lesbianism glimpsed in black-and-white home movies, lead us to wonder whether he could be repressing something. Similarly, Joyce’s angry outburst when she learns about her prospective stepson’s sexuality is inadequately explained. The unper suasive reason she gives for her emotional response—that Harry has been less than truthful with her—leaves us pondering whether she’s a closet homophobe or merely a crude plot device to catapult the narrative from comedy to pathos.
Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton’s co-direction—did the adaptation of a four-character play really require a pair of directors?—is stylistically competent, replete with hideously amusing Aussie interior decoration, and consistently effective in eliciting strong performances from the cast. Thompson, long typed as the macho man of Australian cinema, reveals a hitherto untapped vein of vulnerability. Crowe and Polson are attractive, appealing actors and, unlike their American counterparts, are not inhibited by the eroticism of their love scenes. Kennedy triumphs over the inscrutability of her underwritten role in a deeply felt performance, conveying the fear and emotional longing of a woman scarred by love.
Like Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, The Sum of Us is damaged by the transparency of its noble intentions. But, unlike the stick-figures in that lifeless, politically correct cine-tract, Stevens’ gay and straight characters are at least permitted to express sexual hunger (but, alas, granted no sexual release) and behave, now and again, like recognizable human beings. Had Stevens spared us the gloppy all-you-need-is-love broadsides and sermonizing about accepting differences, he might have been able to reach and affect the mind-set of moviegoers who need to hear what he has to say. But the lumpishness of his approach leaves him stranded in his pulpit, preaching to the converted.