Scent Of A Woman

January 25th, 1993.  The eight-screen Cineplex Odeon Centre Mall Cinemas were exhibiting the latest Al Pacino movie in Theatre One, a mid-size auditorium.  (The month before, it was issued in limited release two days before Christmas.  Just in time for Oscar consideration.)  Just a little after 8 p.m., the lights quietly dimmed.  Almost three hours later, it was over.
As I walked back home thinking how good the movie was, one thought stood out among all the others:  he’s going to win an Oscar.
Sure enough, after receiving a Best Actor nomination that February, to no one’s surprise, Al Pacino finally snagged the elusive statuette on March 29th on his eighth nomination.  (He was previously recognized for Glengarry Glen Ross, Dick Tracy, …And Justice For All, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather Part II, Serpico and The Godfather.)
Once safely retired to my bedroom, I quickly wrote, without stopping, a critical assessment in ink.  It was review #137 for my unpublished book of terrible movie reviews entitled The Movie Critic: Book One.  Within a few weeks, after screening and critiquing fifteen more movies, the project was abandoned.  My high school percentages were dipping a bit which concerned my parents.  Plus, I was miserable over my failure to be a decent Student Council President which also aroused their worry.  Although no reviews would be written in almost two months, movies were still being screened.  Things got back to a somewhat normal state by late April when a busy schedule of regular viewings both at home and at the cinema were resumed.
This review of Scent Of A Woman is radically different than the one I wrote almost fifteen and a half years ago.  It has been extensively revised with very few of the original lines kept intact.  This version is such an improvement over the original, you have no idea.  As I was reworking the original draft, I couldn’t help remembering how much of an emotional impact the film had on me.  It’s that rare movie that stays with you long after you first see it. 
Seven months after the original theatrical exhibition, I rescreened it on tape and enjoyed it all over again.  It’s been a while but sometimes, late at night, you can catch it on regular TV.  Every time I see even just one moment of it, my appreciation for its existence deepens.
Not mentioned in the review is the strong supporting performance of Bradley Whitford.  Before spending many years on The West Wing, he was the go-to guy for obnoxious cinematic cretins.  (Check out his villanous work in Adventures In Babysitting and the second Revenge Of The Nerds movie.)  In Scent Of A Woman, he plays a member of Al Pacino’s family.  During a Thanksgiving meal that Pacino’s character has invited himself to, Whitford tries to wither him by throwing the sad story of his blindness right back in his face.  It pays off nicely with Pacino jumping out of his chair to come very close to strangling the button-pushing prick.  It’s one of the many terrific moments found in this worthwhile feature.  As good as it is, it’s hard to believe it’s a remake.
Adult Accompaniment
157 minutes, 1992
Al Pacino — Lt. Col. Frank Slade
Chris O’Donnell — Charlie Simms
Gabrielle Anwar — Donna
Produced by Martin Brest
Screenplay by Bo Goldman
Music by Thomas Newman
Directed by Martin Brest
It is apparent to this movie critic that Al Pacino is on the verge of finally capturing that most elusive Oscar.  1993 is his year.  His hilarious, touching performance in Scent Of A Woman is worthy of the coveted prize (even though Denzel Washington’s stellar portrayal of Malcolm X is more deserving).
In the film, he plays Lt. Col. Frank Slade, a memorably irascible character living in constant hell.  Blinded by a grenade while in combat (after serving 26 years in the United States Army) he’s stuck living with relatives he can’t stand.  The feeling is mutual.  One day, he meets Charlie (Chris O’Donnell).  Frank’s family are dying to get away for Thanksgiving but the Colonel isn’t coming with them, so they need someone to look after the miserable old sod.  Not a dream assignment as poor Charlie finds out.
Meanwhile, the middle-class prep school student is stuck in the middle of an unrequested ordeal.  Before meeting Frank, the 17-year-old witnesses the assembling of a humiliating prank by three of his much richer schoolmates.  The Dean is the intended victim.  These overprivileged punks want to ruin his newly acquired Jaguar.
The next day, their mean-spirited plan (which includes an insulting poem read out loud over the school’s PA system) works perfectly.  But The Dean is furious.  He’s eager to find the culprits responsible for ruining his vehicle so he can expel them immediately.  Once he learns that Charlie and a co-conspirator named George (a wormy, pre-stardom Philip Seymour Hoffman) know their identities and witnessed them preparing the assault, and after failing to successfully bribe Charlie with an Ivy League scholarship in exchange for his testimony, he vows to browbeat them into confession in front of the whole student body during the film’s gripping third act.
In a foolhardy attempt to escape his ethical dilemma, as well as earn some money for a plane ticket back home for Christmas, Charlie meets with the family of the Colonel about a possible housesitting gig.  Then, he is introduced to him.  He is extremely timid and Slade senses that immediately.  Their first meeting is awful.  The Colonel is defensive and hostile, sometimes jolting Charlie (as well as the audience) with that loud, bracing roar of his.  As the young student tries to engage the emotionally distant Slade in conversation, The Colonel is more interested in insulting his family, his financial status and his pimples.  We quickly learn how impossible and vindicative he can be even though it’s all a cover for his deeply wounded soul.
Much to Charlie’s surprise, though, he gets the $300 gig.  By the end of the film, we realize he has been seriously underpaid.
Slade, it turns out, has plans of his own.  He wants to go out in style.  He’s fed up with his unpleasant retirement and he’s through stewing quietly alone all day in his room embracing no one.  He keeps Charlie in the dark until their plane arrives in New York City.
Soon, the emotionally tortured teenager finds himself smack dab in the middle of another palpable crisis.  But the movie is smart.  It’s in no hurry to push the story to that inevitable moment of danger too soon.  Like the audience, it cares deeply about these characters and wants us to spend as much time with them as possible before ratcheting up the tension.
Before that moment of truth arrives when Charlie realizes just how serious the Colonel is about throwing his life away, Slade’s mood softens when he tangos with a beautiful lady (Gabrielle Anwar in a sweet cameo) in the middle of dinner.  He convinces his increasingly stressed companion to go driving with him in a fancy car.  Despite his fussiness and quick temper, The Colonel is very funny and endlessly enamoured with women.  Throughout their time in New York, we feel an unlikely bond develop between these two societal rejects who are both desperate for some kind of human connection, a shelter from the storm of life.
Through The Colonel, Charlie finds his courage and through Charlie, Slade finds a friend so tolerant and patient, no matter what he does to push him away, the kid grows closer and closer to him.  This revelation shocks this sad old man into feeling again.
Director Martin Brest does a fine job of keeping our minds focused on these two credible characters for over two and a half hours.  No easy feat, that.  The dialogue is sharp and observant.  The pacing is just right.  And Thomas Newman’s acoustic guitar driven score is moving.
Chris O’Donnell has the toughest role in the movie and he does a terrific job essentially playing himself.  We like him right away but we admire him more and more for his integrity and his loyalty to Slade.  As for Pacino, no other actor could convey the burrowed hurt he showcases here through his physical gestures and most especially his theatrically menacing voice like he can.  A lesser performer would’ve made the Colonel an object of pity, a character so buried by the dullness of his existence that we would never see the heartfelt charm beneath his gruff surface.  But in Pacino’s confident hands, he’s a fully developed, fully flawed and strangely lovable character to remember.  
By the end, we are deeply moved and relieved.  Scent Of A Woman is a very good film and Al Pacino’s superb performance, both hilarious and gripping, is the best reason to see it.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, May 11, 2008
12:16 a.m.
Published in: on May 11, 2008 at 12:18 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] for this particular box set, she claims she still hasn’t seen it.  (She should.  It’s very good.)  Spike Fierstein, who wrote this particular show, claims he saw a woman do the exact same thing […]

  2. Saw SOAW in the theatre when it came out. Have watched it on TV and video at least a dozen times.
    Thanks for an outstanding review. Your character studies and analysis of the nuances of the actors’ performances are superior to any reviews I’ve read.
    It’s a pleasure to read the observations if a fellow fan.

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