Lover men

Three new films offer different takes on the myth of the romantic hero

Don Juan DeMarco, the title character of writer-director Jeremy Leven's debut, is far simpler. He's in love with love. That's all you need to know about him because that's all there is to know.

Fortunately, Johnny Depp is both a stunning camera subject and a passionate actor, which means that no matter how many different ways Don Juan pontificates about the power of passion, his enthusiasm never grows tiresome. As framed and lit by cinematographer Ralf Bode, Depp's lithe frame, sculpted cheekbones, and dark eyes recall silent film star Rudolph Valentino, and his wonky verbal stylings--Ricardo Montalban by way of Pepe LePew--caress vowels and consonants in an almost musical fashion.

Aside from his consuming interest in all things carnal, this Don Juan bears little relation to the famous Castilian hero. He's a mysterious 21-year-old clad in a Zorroesque getup who strolls the streets of 20th century New York on an endless quest for sensual adventure. We're never quite sure if he's the real article or just some randy loner who's wrapped himself in an alternate identity because his own no longer suits him; the film is deliberately coy on this point.

Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando), a burned-out psychiatrist at a Queens mental hospital who talks the hero out of a suicide attempt, isn't sure what to make of him, either. But because he's a reformed romantic himself, Jack becomes fond of his patient with startling speed.

According to New York state law, Mickler has 10 days to examine the young man and establish whether he's a nut case who needs heavy medication and a padded cell or just a hapless dreamer with an unusually rich fantasy life. The film consists mainly of three types of scenes: Don Juan spinning tall tales about his childhood, adolescence, and sex life; flashbacks to the life in question; and sweet domestic scenes between Jack and his wife, Marilyn (Faye Dunaway, who doesn't have much to do but still seems to be having a grand time).

It's a given that Don Juan's rich (and richly erotic) stories will rekindle the Micklers' dormant marriage, and that the dreamer will eventually triumph over the cynics who want him institutionalized. The script's free-floating, slightly daft aura is exceptionally fragile; the slightest hint of condescension would have shattered it instantly. It's a storybook fable for adults--Miracle on 34th St. with hormones.

But thanks primarily to the chemistry between the two male leads, the film is a delight from start to finish--provided, of course, that you're willing to sympathize with a promiscuous, goofy, and enigmatic protagonist whose only distinguishing characteristic is that he's in love with the idea of love.

Depp plays Don Juan with a hilariously straight face, which renders funny scenes funnier and sexy scenes sexier and makes Leven's amazingly ornate dialogue feel spontaneous and true--the musings of a restless man who lives an epic life among trivial people. (This guy can't even find a simple way to tell Jack that one of his great loves was a virgin; he instead describes her as "unacquainted with the miracle of physical love.")

And Marlon Brando is surprisingly effective in a low-key, Working-Joe part that's leagues away from the cameo hack jobs he's specialized in for the past couple of decades. Alert, bemused, and sly, he moves and talks like a man half his age and one-third his weight.

In a sense, Jack Mickler's progress from bored old man to reinvigorated lover finds its parallel in Brando's performance: as a bored old doctor rediscovers how much he loves romance, the burned-out movie star who plays him rediscovers how much he loves acting.

Don Juan DeMarco isn't a perfect movie. It coasts along from setpiece to setpiece on the fumes of audience goodwill, and because Jeremy Leven is a better writer than director, it doesn't always find a visual equivalent for the passion expressed in the hero's words. But on its own sweetly kooky terms, it's a success.

In a key flashback, one of Don Juan's most ardent lovers asks the young stud how many conquests he's had, and is treated to a list of some 1,500 names. "The number," deadpans Don Juan, "was considerably higher than she was prepared to expect."

After sitting through this wonderful movie, so were my spirits.
Rob Roy, a new romantic adventure from director Michael Caton-Jones (This Boy's Life, Memphis Belle), concerns a rugged 18th-century Scottish highlander who battles evil British royals to save his land, his family, and his honor.

The kilt-wearing, homily-spouting title character--played by Liam Neeson as a cross between Jesus Christ, Shane, and the Brawny towel man--is the leader of a clan of roguish toughs-for-hire eking out a precarious living among the hills and moors of Scotland. When we first meet them, they're repossessing some stolen livestock for the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt), a transplanted British oppressor who's engaged in a power spat with Killearn (Brian Cox), his disgruntled Scottish counterpart.

To make an essentially simple yet inexplicably protracted story somewhat shorter, Rob Roy decides to borrow a thousand pounds from the Marquis to finance the expansion of his own lands. The Marquis' slimy underlings, led by a foppish swordmaster (Tim Roth), double-cross Rob Roy. They steal the money from the hero's courier and best pal, Alan (Eric Stoltz). Then they kill Alan, hide his body, and concoct a ridiculous story about how Alan pilfered the money and fled to America.

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