Scent of a Woman (1992) / Drama
MPAA rated R for sexual references and language
Running time: 157 min.
Cast: Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell, James Rebhorn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rochelle Oliver, Nicholas Sadler, Gabrielle Anwar, Richard Venture, Bradley Whitford
Small role: Frances Conroy, Ron Eldard
Director: Martin Brest
Screenplay: Bo Goldman (based on the novel, "Il Buio E Il Miele" by Giovanni Arpino and the screenplay to Profumi di Donna by Ruggero Maccari and Dino Risi)
Review published March 23, 2013
Scent of a Woman is most notable for being the film that finally brought Al Pacino (Glengarry Glen Ross, Dick Tracy) an Oscar. While he has done roles that have been far more deserving of such an honor, there's very little denying that he is the best part of this film, and the main reason why anyone might come away with it feeling like it is time well spent at over 2.5 hours. Those of you who are reading this should be aware that I loathe Dead Poets Society, a film that evokes that same, Ivy League fictitious, feel-good, saccharine quality that Scent of a Woman captures throughout. This film is a big load of manipulative, eyeroll-inducing hogwash, only with a mesmerizing (if approaching scenery-chewing) performance at its heart. Certainly, Pacino is deserving of a better film around him, so it's hard to blame him for wildly emoting in order to make the rest of this forced drama somewhat entertaining.
The premise is that milquetoast, financially struggling New England prep school student, Charlie Simms (O'Donnell, Batman Forever), takes a job to work over the Thanksgiving break looking after the needs of a loud, cantankerous, blind former Army lieutenant colonel named Frank Slade. Unbeknownst to Charlie, Frank aims to take advantage of his caretaker daughter and her family who are tending to him being away by getting away himself to New York City, where he aims to live one last weekend in style, dining on the finest foods, smoking the best cigars, imbibing the most whiskey, and enjoying the company of women. Frank is certainly a handful, though a bigger problem is weighing Charlie down, as he is put in the unenviable position of tattling on his fellow classmates who've committed a prank that blemishes a fancy car, as well as the ego of the snooty school headmaster named Trask (Rebhorn, My Cousin Vinny) who it was given to. Not doing so will not only jeopardize his chances of getting into Harvard, but also result in his likely expulsion from the school altogether.
The first big knock against Scent of a Woman is its gratuitous length. Films that run 157 minutes are often epics, such as war movies, eye-candy blockbusters, and adaptations of great literary works. While Martin Brest (Midnight Run, Beverly Hills Cop) is certainly a solid director (Gigli notwithstanding), and he does manage to keep the look and feel of the film slick and entertaining, his story is teeming with moments that are either meant to be cute, or which go on far past their value to the overall story. The screenplay by Bo Goldman (Melvin and Howard, Meet Joe Black) , loosely adapted from an Italian comedy, Profumi di Donna, is rife with well-meaning artificiality, not the least of which is the entire premise of Charlie's predicament being one which no institution, no matter how bullheaded the faculty, would ever subject students who may or may not have been eyewitness to a prank would ever do, especially in the way it all plays out in the end, where these students are grilled in the hot seat in front of all their peers.
Of course, as movies like these go, the blind man can see far more than anyone else in the film in terms of how the world works, and his sage wisdom to Charlie has a profound effect on the lad, who begins to care enough for the old coot to try to thwart his efforts on ending his life at the end of his weekend binge. And we can feel just how heavy the burden of Frank's life is as he flips the charisma off like a light switch, lowering his gaze and staring off into nothingness, all the while Thomas Newman's (The Player, Less Than Zero) maudlin score practically gets down on its knees and beseeches us for our unwavering sympathy.
While the film contains some farfetched cutesy set pieces, such as Frank wooing a young woman by teaching her a tango in a posh restaurant (how did the band know just what to play?), and Frank driving a Ferrari at breakneck speeds through what appears to be the least populous street in any city (not to mention, hairpin turns), the already extended plot comes completely unraveled by its manufactured ending, which features the egregiously unlikely sight of a mock courtroom proceeding interrogation of Charlie and a fellow classmate (Hoffman, Twister) on who and what they saw on the night of the setting of the prank. If that weren't bad enough, the 'deus ex machina' is employed, as the headmaster allows for what appears to be the most liberal amount of grandstanding to make a case since Pacino did it in And Justice for All (complete with outbursts of the proceeding being, "Out of order!"). You would think that any man threatening to burn the place down with a flamethrower might call for the headmaster or his judicial committee to try to curb the bombast of his rhetoric a bit.
Scent of a Woman is shot well, and features some decent acting performances, but it is the hackneyed script and direction (somehow, both nominated for Oscars, as well as the film garnering a Best Picture nod(!)) that seems to be playing to the crowd, pushing every mawkish button to either make audiences smile or frown on cue. Approaching the three-hour mark, the story is too frivolous in its essence to justify this much time spent, only seeming deep thanks to Frank's assertion that he is going to 'blow his brains out' at the end of his weekend of hedonism. Meanwhile, Charlie's moral wrangling over being a stoolie barely merits any exposure as a critical plot point (his answer to the question of what he saw is, "I just couldn't say," which is supposed to make us believe that willful deceit, rather than a blatant lie, is the acceptable course of action), and such notions as it being the end of his life too are just too overblown to stomach in such an overreaching, meandering script. We learn next to nothing about women, about life, or really what the point of the movie is about other than that you're flawed, I'm flawed, the world is all flawed, so let's just give each other a pass. If this is the kind of lesson that rouses our future leaders into a standing ovation, we're all screwed indeed.
©2013 Vince Leo