'Scent: the aroma of incoherence

January 08, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Scent of a Woman"

Starring Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell.

Directed by Bo Goldman.

Released by Universal.



Ah, the wonders of reputation. If you've got one, it's impossible to do wrong, and if you don't, it's impossible to do right. Of its power, no more potent evidence exists than "Scent

of a Woman."

Everybody attached to this baby smells like a rose. Al Pacino, of course, is Al Pacino, dynamic, intense, charismatic, clearly one of our best actors. Director Martin Brest has made two mainstream hits, "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Midnight Run," each of which had some particle of distinction that raised it beyond the usual multimillion-dollar moron movie. Then there's screenwriter Bo Goldman, revered for his penetrating scripts for "Melvin &

Howard" and "Shoot the Moon," each of which demonstrated some insight into the way real people talk and live.

And the movie seems to be getting good reviews; even the boys who think the piece itself is problematic single out Pacino for praise for his all-warts portrayal of a blind, embittered ex-Army officer who teaches a young man a few important lessons about life.

Excuse me? "Scent of a Woman" is a banality wrapped inside an inanity. Pacino's performance is mostly eye-popping and cheek-puffing, and his Southern accent is a sometime thing; the performance is all tricks, strange line readings, attention-milking visual strategies. Pacino makes an ass out of himself, or rather the script does, for it gives him no coherent character to play and the movie isn't constructed in such a way as to let him develop from one scene to the next. It's a mess.

Underneath the histrionics, "Scent of a Woman" is a jazzed-up, ++ inside-out "Harold and Maude," though it lacks the latter's offbeat charm; it's the same story -- a crusty, brusque, death-haunted older person manages through sheer charisma to liberate" an uptight WASP drone to his inner child.

The meat of the movie is sunk in a cheesy frame story so conventional and uncompelling as to be purely irritating. Young prep school student Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell) has accidentally witnessed a prank that made a fool out of a pompous dean. The dean gives him a weekend to consider ratting out his buddies and getting a good recommendation for Harvard or facing expulsion -- that's hard to swallow and feels jury-rigged for sanctimony. Why not make the point of honor serious -- cheating on a test, for example -- so that the moral dilemma has some weight.

In any event, on the weekend that he has to make up his mind, he signs up for a job baby-sitting a nearby recluse so that the man's daughter can take a week off with her husband. This is Pacino, of course, as retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, a blind war hero sunk into anger and remorse, who lives in a little house out back, snarling at the world that has so let him down -- that is, when he's not running up a bill on 1-900-PHONSEX.

But in an instant Charlie learns that the colonel doesn't plan to spend his 48 hours moldering in the dark; he wants to take a weekend pass in New York. What follows is a series of misadventures that range from the magical to the grotesque to, far more common, the indifferent as the two ultimately bond.

Only once does the movie catch fire: when Pacino catches the substance of the title in the air and invites a young woman in an elegant New York bar to spin a tango with him. Magic indeed: She's young and tender, and for once one feels the force of his personality and charm, and the erotic electricity between them as embodied in what remains the world's hottest dance.

But more often, the episodes are puzzling: At one point, Slade drags the boy to his decent brother-in-law's house, horns in on the dinner (it's Thanksgiving), begins to bait his nephew and ultimately assaults him when he begins to lose the argument. Goldman can't figure out what the father would say under these grotesque circumstances and so has him say nothing. Absurd! "Scent of a Woman" never builds, never accelerates; it feels disassociated, random, as it plunges absurdly from episode to episode.

In the end, the movie lurches into a wretched new personality, in which Pacino becomes Simms' barrister at his honor hearing. It turns out he has no argument, because of course the movie has advanced no idea of honor and Pacino -- military identity or not -- stands for nothing except bad acting. His advocacy consists of loud, profane hectoring for the cheap seats, maybe the tinniest ploy in movies since Rocky's wife awoke from the dead and told him to win.

Maybe they'll try that one in "Scent of a Woman II."

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