Marlon Brando's star turn in 1990's The Freshman was possibly the greatest piece of self-parody in the history of film acting. Sending up his Godfather persona, the actor transcended it--he gave soul, warmth, humor and true innocence to the bleak old don, and the performance had both vitality and a glorious sense of valediction. The marrow and deep sadness of the Godfather films were turned inside out.

Matthew Broderick's job in The Freshman--which he performed admirably--was to provide the awestruck, befuddled reactions to Brando's glittering strangeness. In Don Juan DeMarco, the process is reversed. Brando plays straight man to a beautiful young nut. It's hard to imagine any experience much more heady for a young actor than to have Brando cede a movie to you, but Johnny Depp has earned it--he's proved himself, in film after film, a miracle of comic invention. All the same, Brando by no means fades into the woodwork.

Brando plays a psychiatrist for the state of New York who is called on by the police to talk to a young man--Depp--threatening to jump off a billboard over unrequited love. The kid claims he's none other than Don Juan, and he's wearing the caballero finery to prove it, plus a dapper little mask. To talk the Don out of suicide, the shrink falls easily--right down to the corny accent--into the role of "Don Octavio de Flores," an older nobleman who offers the desperate young lover sage, respectful advice on the need to go on living, in the name of undying love.

The Don ends up in a state hospital under Brando's care, and writer-director Jeremy Leven ends up resorting to that familiar, dime-store-irony premise: In this crazy world, are the mad any crazier than those who call themselves sane? The shrink receives two differing accounts of the Don's life--the swoony romantic one the kid narrates, while it's shown to us in flashback, and the painfully mundane one he hears from the Don's grandmother. The chief shrink (Bob Dishy) can't wait to start pumping the kid full of psychotropic medication, and it's up to Brando whether to release him when his ten-day observation period is up.

Even though one may groan at this plot, Depp and Brando make magic together. Depp, looking tiny and delicate, filters prim, precise line readings through a delirious Spanish accent. He's a cartoon lover, to be sure, but he's the opposite of Pepe LePew. He's so flawlessly suave and courteous that there's no hint of self-absorption to him. Brando, still startlingly handsome even under his obesity, continues to play "Don Octavio" during his sessions with the kid, and the quality of deeply sober conference between them is very funny--it's what makes the movie work. It truly is easier to believe that we're watching the growing friendship of a couple of 17th-century noblemen than that we're watching modern psychiatry. When the Don tells the shrink, "You, like me, are a great lover, even if you have lost your way," it plays on our awareness of Brando's own career circumstances.

Don Juan DeMarco falters whenever it moves away from the Don's silly narrative, or his relationship with the shrink. Brando's style has become so rarefied that he seems to have a little trouble finding a rhythm in ordinary functional scenes, like those with Dishy. Brando's best scene without Depp is his first, in which he briefly teases a rotund detective (Richard Sarafian) about his weight--it's an obligatory acknowledgment, as if the movie is saying "Okay, let's get this out of the way before we start." Faye Dunaway plays the shrink's wife; the Don's tale reawakens his intense passion for her. Dunaway looks fabulous, but isn't given anything much to do, though her little jumps of alarm at her husband's long-dormant romantic flourishes are pretty funny.

Don Juan DeMarco is, finally, not much of a movie. Leven's direction is slovenly and ungainly, and most of the good writing in his script is confined to Depp's narration. Still more annoying, however, is that, la Mr. Jones and the earlier Depp film Benny & Joon, Don Juan DeMarco carries on Hollywood's long-held and offensive insistence that debilitating mental illness simply doesn't exist, that the disturbed are never suffering wretches, and that those who treat them are nothing but bloodless conformists who wish to stamp out whimsicality. It's worth noting that we never see even one other mental patient in Brando's hospital, or his "villa," as the Don calls it. If we did, the game would be up.

Yet acting as creative and soulful as that of Brando and Depp can make us overlook even phoniness of this sort, at least temporarily. The names "Brando" and "Depp," by the way, need no longer seem incongruous in the same sentence.