MOVIE REVIEWS : Pacino Catches the Scent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the remarkable new film "Scent of a Woman," Al Pacino plays Frank Slade, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and war hero who spends his days in a dingy tract house on the New Hampshire property of his niece's family. Five years earlier, upset at being passed over for promotion after more than 20 years in the service, and recklessly showing off for some recruits, he juggled a few grenades. One of them went off, blinding him.

When we first glimpse Frank in the near-darkness of his living room, he seems transfixed by his own rage; he's like a still-life martinet. But when he begins barking orders at Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell), the scholarship student from the posh, nearby prep school who's been hired to take care of him for the weekend, Frank is in his element. His furious, aggressive, cadenced delivery has a military snap to it; conversation with Frank becomes a form of combat.

What gives Pacino's performance such power is that he also shows you the self-loathing that steels Frank's speech. Frank is a bully but he's a desolate bully. He's a soldier who has become his own battleground.

The drama in "Scent of a Woman"--directed by Martin Brest and scripted by Bo Goldman, and very loosely based on a 1974 Italian film starring Vittorio Gassman--is mostly in the language, in the way these two malcontents work off each other's emotions. There isn't a whole lot of plot: Frank induces Charlie to accompany him on a Thanksgiving weekend bender in New York City, with dire consequences the boy can't foresee. That's about it, and yet this limited scope works in the film's favor. We've become so accustomed--even in our so-called "adult" dramas--to action-oriented, short-attention-span scenarios that the deliberate, one-step-at-a-time relationship between Frank and Charlie can seem a little perverse and attenuated. And some of it is attenuated; the film (rated R for language) would be better shorter. But it's essentially a tour de force for Pacino, and he sustains us through the slow passages by working with a closed-in intensity that turns each scene into a kind of mini-movie complete with its own ticking time bomb.

The movie (citywide) is about how Frank and Charlie save each other's lives. Frank, on his bender, has the abandon of a man who is doing everything for the last time. He preens his misery. He also has a bitter man's relish for other people's miseries; his radar picks up Charlie's troubles before the boy has volunteered a word.

Charlie's troubles are far from minor. Along with another student, chunky, spoiled-rich George Willis (Philip S. Hoffman), he has recently witnessed the beginnings of a student prank that resulted in the public humiliation of the school's headmaster (James Rebhorn), who threatens to expel both boys if they don't reveal the perpetrators. The headmaster has also offered Charlie an added inducement--a guaranteed scholarship to Harvard. Charlie has a decision to make by the week's end: To snitch or not to snitch.

The close connection between the hierarchy of the military and the prep school is clearly defined. Both play off of privilege. The exuberant elitism of Charlie's moneyed classmates is a kind of pageant. We might be observing a campus of George Bushes-in-waiting. Their pranks and double-crosses carry the imprimatur of entitlement.

Frank, as evidenced by his own down-turned career, understands the hazards of crossing that entitlement. And so he spends most of the movie goading Charlie to snitch, as if the capitulation of this decent, earnest, middle-class kid would confirm his own worst cynicism about the way the world works. But Charlie isn't quite as blinkered as Frank assumes. As Chris O'Donnell plays him, and that's wonderfully, Charlie has his own radar. He recognizes the bluff and the guff in Frank's posturing. He also recognizes in Frank an innate courtliness, which is why Frank finally begins to trust him.

Frank reserves that courtliness almost exclusively for women. His Old World adoration of them bestows value on himself; he prizes his ability to "read" a woman just by her choice of perfume. But Pacino also suggests how Frank's adorations might issue from a rage at his condition. He's a romantic who also occupies his days with dial-a-porn; his Manhattan dream date is a high-priced hooker. This collision of the romantic and the pornographic is central to Frank's personality. He enjoys the sheer effrontery of sexual impulse, and he carries on for most of the movie like a dirty bard.

Bo Goldman, whose screenplays for "Melvin and Howard" and "Shoot the Moon" are quite possibly the two finest American scripts of the '80s, knows how to turn on the emotional waterworks without getting soppy. There's an essential decency to his writing; he gives each character his due, even the preppies. Martin Brest, after the hopped-up high jinks of his "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Midnight Run," responds to the humanity in Goldman's script. It's a very sympathetic collaboration. The film could be a bit more tough-minded; there are moments when Frank is too Chaplinesque (the theme music from Chaplin's "City Lights," with its Little Tramp and blind flower seller, even works its way into the score). And the finale is cornball.

But at least its rousingly cornball: It's like watching the acting out of a dream revenge fantasy. Pacino works inside that dream with an amazing grace. He follows the logic of Frank's fury in "Scent of a Woman" and it takes him to places he's never been before as an actor.

'Scent of a Woman'

Al Pacino: Lt. Col. Frank Sade

Chris O'Donnell: Charlie Simms

James Rebhorn: Mr. Trask

Gabrielle Anwar: Donna

A Universal release of a City Lights Films production. Producer-director Martin Brest. Executive producer Ronald L. Schwary. Screenplay by Bo Goldman, suggested by a character created from the film "Profumo Di Donna," written by Ruggero Maccari and Dino Risi based on the novel "Il Buio E Il Miele" by Giovanni Arpino. Cinematographer Donald L. Thorin. Editors William Steinkamp, Michael Tronick, Harvey Rosenstock. Costumes Aude Bronson-Howard. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Angelo Graham. Art director W. Steven Graham. Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. Sound Danny Michael. Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language).

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