"Sea of Love" (citywide) is a satisfactory end-of-summer diversion, the kind of film that works as long as you ask nothing of it beyond simple escape. It's a slick, knowing genre film, through and through, a New York cop suspense thriller that we've seen countless times before.
It does, thankfully, have a sense of humor, and it does have Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin and John Goodman, all of whom are a bright, constant pleasure. Pacino and Barkin do scorch the screen, although this doesn't happen until a full hour into the picture; nevertheless, they become helpful in distracting attention from various implausibilities.
Writer Richard Price and director Harold Becker take more time and pains than necessary to establish that Pacino's Frank Keller, a Manhattan police detective unsettled by reaching 20 years on the force, is a savvy, dedicated pro, earthy, gregarious and volatile yet an achingly lonely man beneath all the bravado. Goodman's sharp, humorous Sherman, a detective in Queens, comes into the picture when he and Frank team up to try to catch a serial killer whose victims are selected in the personals column of a singles magazine. Their one break appears to be that the murderer is attracted to ads employing poetry.
Barkin's Helen, the cool, sexy manager of a chic shoe store, is one of the respondents to an ad placed by Frank as a bait. After a bit of skirmishing, Frank and Helen commence a highly combustible romance. Never mind that this is contrary to orders; Frank is so carried away that he even resists having Helen's water glass checked for prints. Yet a series of incidents and remarks suggest that Frank's life could very well be in great danger. Golly, Helen even has a copy of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" in her collection of old 45s, a record that was playing over and over at the scene of the killings.
On its most basic level, "Sea of Love" works because Barkin has the skill to keep us guessing whether she is actually a man-hating crazy or just a wary veteran of the dating wars. There's no question that we are meant to see writ in large the paranoia that cripples so many relationships out there in the urban jungle, but this is to take "Sea of Love" too seriously. (Actually, the film is preferable to the disturbingly muddled seriousness of "Fatal Attraction.")
There's nothing at all profound in Helen or Frank, and Pacino and Barkin are engaged in showy star turns, loaded with attitudes and poses, that are fun in themselves and in fact appropriate for this superficial entertainment. Their duel of personalities is nicely anchored by the presence of Goodman, whose wit is as formidable as his bulk. Patricia Barry is heart-breaking as an elegant, lonely older woman who has answered Frank's ad.
As sleek as "Sea of Love" (rated R for violence, sex and language) is, it can't quite keep us away from wondering how a smart woman like Helen, whose looks would stop traffic and whose work would bring her into constant contact with an array of sophisticated men, would ever resort to the personals--unless, of course, she really is a psychopath.