Martin Brest first hit the big time as the director of Beverly Hills Cop, the movie that epitomized the Hollywood formula of "good cop vs. evil drug dealer." Every bit of the movie was predictable; if it wasn't for Eddie Murphy's winning performance, it would have been a piece of garbage.
Brest scored again with Midnight Run, another Hollywood formula film--but once again the project was saved by winning performances from its lead stars, Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. We watched the movie for these characters, not for the chase-and-crash scenes, and as a result it delivered handsomely.
And now we have Scent of a Woman, which once again looks like a Hollywood formula product: an innocent college student is whisked off to New York City for a weekend of thrills by the gentleman he's supposed to be caring for. What's more, there's a subplot involving "honor" and "loyalty" and "betrayal"--something milked shamelessly by this holiday season's other politically correct "feel-good" movie, A Few Good Men.
On paper, it looks like your standard Hollywood "buddy" movie. But when one of those buddies is played by Al Pacino, you know that something good is going to happen.
Pacino has been on a roll lately, after spending most of the eighties in near-seclusion. He's come back with a vengeance, and this year we've already seen him as the sleazy real estate broker Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. Now he plays a bitter, blind war veteran in a performance that raises Scent of a Woman above the level of today's inoffensive schmaltz and makes it a truly enjoyable experience.
The setup is pure Hollywood: Chris O'Donnell plays Charlie Simms, a meek, shy, poor college student who happens to witness a practical joke played on the school's dean by a group of trouble-making pupils. What's more, he's been offered an ultimatum: either he squeals on the perpetrators and gives names, or he'll be expelled. (The dean is an idiot, of course; the First Rule of Hollywood college movies states that the principal must have the IQ and morals of a dung heap.)
Now, Charlie has to raise some money for his Christmas trip back home, so he takes what looks like an easy job: care for an elderly war veteran over the Thanksgiving weekend. The woman offering the job tells him "it's the easiest $300 you'll ever make," but after Charlie meets the fellow, he admits "I don't get an easy feeling."
Here's where we meet Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade.
This is, of course, Pacino's movie: he takes command the second he appears on-screen, controlling the lives of everyone around him. Slade is a complex man, who blinded himself by accident when he drank too much one day and played with a hand grenade; now he tosses down Jack Daniels as if they were water, never getting drunk. He screams at everyone and wants sits alone in the dark, hurting everyone around him because he feels that it's the only way to survive without admitting how much he's hurting inside.
But the Colonel has a special plan for this particular weekend: as soon as the folks leave the driveway on their Thanksgiving trip, he practically drags Charlie onto a first-class jet, and the two are off to New York City. Slade wants only to feel the touch of a woman's arm for one last time--but his plan for this weekend is destined to end in tragedy.
Now, in the hands of most other actors, this would be a typical Hollywood "odd couple learns to trust each other and each is changed by the experience" movie. But Pacino turns Slade into a real human being, able to tell a woman's brand of perfume just by taking a sniff, and keeping the whole world on its toes when he enters the scene. He's a world-wise man, able to live by his wits. He figures out immediately that Charlie has a dilemma of his own; the advice he offers is to take what you can, and forget the other people. That's the code he's lived by all his life, because the world is a tough place.
One of the film's best moments occurs when he and Charlie drop in on his brother uninvited for Thanksgiving dinner. Slade walks in the door and announces his presence with a roar, and his brother sitting upstairs immediately recognizes his voice with a start; it's obvious that he's been putting up with Slade all of his life. When the Colonel sweeps a shy young girl off her feet at a fancy New York restaurant, we feel the magic in the air. He can make things happen--but because he's blind, he feels useless and wasted. (The movie doesn't go out of its way to present Pacino as a blind man; it's done naturally in a fashion that doesn't force his disability on us. This is one of the film's strengths: it doesn't hit us over the head with the story, until the very end.)
Chris O'Donnell had his hands full keeping up with Pacino, one of the greatest actors of our time. It would have been easy for him to be overwhelmed by Slade's character, especially since most of the script calls for him to be quiet and meek. But he holds his own, as he sees the Colonel's time rapidly running out. The old soldier is becoming distraught and careless about himself, and Charlie knows that he has to teach him to love life once again. But because his character is developed so well, we believe him as he asserts himself and does what he can to help the Colonel. Charlie's not as simple as he looks, and the Colonel's desperate grasps for attention bring out the best in him, even as he's changing the old man for good.
But after all this buildup, it's a disappointment when the movie's climax has Slade giving a corn-ball speech in Charlie's defense, trying like so many other movies to capture the magic of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. After two and a half hours of wonderful character development, to wrap everything up neatly in typical Hollywood fashion is nothing less than a cop-out. Even Pacino descends into overacting here, and the film ends with your typical "I've been through a crisis, but now my life is perfect" note that we get all too often from Hollywood films. If the rest of the movie wasn't so good, this would be irritating.
However, Pacino must have realized what a waste this final scene is, however, because he caps it off with a one-liner that I won't reveal, saving the movie from descending into pure kitsch the way A Few Good Men did.
The movie is a full two hours and forty minutes long, though there are very few moments that don't contribute to the story. I certainly wasn't bored, and yet I had the feeling that the story could have been shortened by as much as an hour. Brest tried screening shorter versions of the film to preview audiences, and they were confused or disappointed with the results, so the movie was released at full length. The problem lies with the screenplay's pacing: it's leisurely paced when it should be rushing forward at breakneck speed. Scent of a Woman is an enjoyable experience, but it could have been a truly great motion picture if it picked up the tempo in the way Jonathan Demme's Something Wild did.
Despite its length, however, you won't be looking at your watch when you see this movie. Brest may be a Hollywood director at heart, but he cares about his characters, and because he does, we do. Scent of a Woman is a movie you won't regret seeing, thanks to a great performance by Al Pacino that you'll remember for a long time.