Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: SCENT OF A WOMAN

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The first in our Al Pacino retrospective series when there’s nothing to review in theaters.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: On a recent visit to see Rob in Philadelphia, he and I talked a lot about Al Pacino. We talked so much about Al Pacino that we both were talking like Al Pacino. Al Pacino rules. In honor of this great actor and his career, Rob and I wanted to do a career retrospective and we’re starting with the movie that won him an Academy Award for Best Actor after eight nominations: Scent of a Woman. I have somehow seen the end of Scent of a Woman what seems like hundreds of times on cable over the years, but I think I’ve only watched the movie two or three times in its entirety since it was released in December of 1992. Upon this most recent re-watch, my opinion remains the same. It’s Oscar bait, but very watchable Oscar bait with a tinge of nostalgia now because it’s so 1992. Rob, what is your history with this movie?

Rob: I first saw Scent of Woman sometime in high school. It was at the height of my romantic idealism — films like Chasing Amy, A Few Good Men, and Good Will Hunting were really speaking to me. I was totally obnoxious. Scent of a Woman fit right in, and I’ll admit that while it’s certainly Oscar bait, I’m still too in love with Pacino’s performance to see it as anything but an exploding heart movie. Chris O’Donnell gets a lot of shit, but I think he’s good in this movie! It’s also full of character actors I love like Bradley Whitford and James Rebhorn. It sports a 25-year old Philip Seymour Hoffman. It taught me how to spell Gstaad. “When in doubt, fuck.” I could go on. No matter how preposterous it might be, I really love it.

That said, it’s constantly cited as evidence that Pacino had jumped the shark around the early ‘90s (I don’t agree, but I see the argument). Where are you on the various eras of Pacino?
Adam: That’s an interesting question. The first Al Pacino performance that I saw was his villain turn in Dick Tracy, so I was primed for heightened Pacino by the time I saw Scent of a Woman. That was only reinforced by his work in Glengarry Glen Ross, Carlito’s Way, Heat and The Devil’s Advocate. It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that I saw him more scaled back in films like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Donnie Brasco. I am genuinely a fan of his no matter how big he goes. I know some think he jumped the shark beginning with Scent of a Woman (the showiness, the willingness to take parts in lesser movies, etc.) but I’d argue Pacino (and Nicholson and De Niro, all of whom are leveled with the same criticism) can do subdued when they want to or the role calls for it. It’s not always “Loud Al.” Also, no one does loud quite like Al Pacino. He’s one of a kind.

I think part of the reason he’s parodied so much is because people are being defensive in their reaction to these loud performances. They have affection for them, but for whatever reason they’re conditioned that big acting is bad acting when that’s not the case at all. In Scent of a Woman, Pacino's an erupting volcano in a quiet meadow, but that’s in line with the point of view of his character. He’s angry and railing against his environment and the people around him. The thing I most admired about his trajectory in Scent of a Woman is that he can only function in a military-like environment where there’s a chain of command that demands people adhere to his wants and needs. In Charlie, Chris O’Donnell’s character, he gets a student but also a bridge to civilian life that he resisted before.

I don’t think O’Donnell turns in a star-making performance in Scent of a Woman (though it did make him a star for a while), but he’s effectively open for the dynamic he’s supposed to have with the Pacino character. In the key scene where (SPOILERS) O’Donnell stops Pacino from killing himself, I wish O’Donnell was more up to the task of sparring with Pacino. Even when he’s cursing and yelling at Pacino, O’Donnell has a tentativeness in his voice that I don’t think rings true to that moment. At that point, even a passive character like Charlie would be absolutely fed up and projecting anger at Lt. Col. Frank Slade. I’m also glad you mentioned some of the supporting players like Whitford, Rebhorn (who I’ve always liked too and he never got much due) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’ve avoided watching Philip Seymour Hoffman performances since his death and I think this might be only the second or third I’ve revisited since 2014. I miss him in movies. Scent of a Woman was a role that helped him launch a career in Hollywood, and even at a young age he was remarkable. He provides a rich personality for what would, in most movies, be a minor role.
One of the aspects I enjoy about Scent of a Woman is its pacing. I love that it's slow and meandering and has double climaxes (Hoo-ah!), which I’m sure Lt. Col. Slade would enjoy hearing. I love that it feels like a Thanksgiving weekend trip. You feel the days passing and it’s believable in the number of things they get done on those days. The two characters might be unwelcome company on their own, but together Lt. Col. Slade and Charlie are compelling. One aspect I love about the movie (that the film doesn’t hit you over the head with) is the observation that Pacino’s character likes to talk to people. He sees the woman sitting alone (Gabrielle Anwar, who should have had a bigger career) and his first inclination is to be a flirt and a charmer. She might rebuke him (he knows she probably will), but he knows you will only get a hit if you go up to bat to swing (or in this case, tango). Charlie is the exact opposite. He sees a beautiful woman and immediately folds into himself. He has better manners than Lt. Col. Slade, but he won’t get as far as him because he’s not taking any chances. He’s too busy trying not to offend the world with his mere presence. This spills over onto Charlie’s big decision he must make (whether to turn in his classmates for disciplinary action), where he seems powerless to proactively affect his situation in any direction. He would rather sit there, still, and let the decision be made for him. The movie is just as much about Lt. Col. Slade shaking Charlie out of his haze as Slade needs to be shook out of his own, different one.

What do you think of the conclusion of the movie set at the prep school?

Rob: It’s pretty ridiculous, but again, it’s so much of what the movie was building toward that you have to love it. I think it’s hysterical that the punk kids pranked their headmaster with a little poem about how he’s...beholden to the board of directors? Is it a commentary on the blinders of privilege? Is this some sort of business executive hazing program? This is some white people nonsense. Anyway. I agree that O’Donnell is underwhelming, even in moments where you or I might give a little more pushback. I’m still not sure I disagree with the performance choices, though, because his is kind of the inverse of Pacino’s performance. Even the slightest little peep of objection is akin to him throwing a punch. I was actually imagining this movie remade with the lead characters from Rick & Morty, which makes sense if you know that show. Still, I think O’Donnell is serviceable enough to get Pacino all teed up to unleash his foul-mouthed glory in the climax. I’ve mentioned before how turned on I get by long-winded monologues, and this is one of the best. I also love that the other students burst into frenzied applause when Charlie is exonerated. Like, why do they give a shit about this kid? I thought he was an outcast? The movie knows we need that release, though, so I give it a pass for going as huge and bombastic as possible.
I’m with you on Loud Al. It’s so much more than overacting. It’s picking and choosing the volume and intonations of certain lines based on the rhythm of the moment. He’s not just screaming at people. He’s literally controlling the scene around him by pitching forward and then pulling back along with the character’s emotional state. It’s an overreach in control compensating for insecurity, like you said. He’s testing the limits of the people around him, and that’s what makes it so cathartic when he starts standing up for Charlie in public and calling him his son. We immediately feel that change in their relationship. I also think that’s why the Thanksgiving scene with Bradley Whitford is so important. The way he eggs his nephew on with the “Hoo-ahs” as he chronicles his most shameful moments is really heartbreaking. Like it’s his armor making a last-ditch effort to stay solid. We know he’d never have brought Charlie along had he proved untrustworthy or weak-willed, and now we see why he did. He wanted Charlie to hear the truth and see the way it infected his relationship with his family. He was being totally vulnerable and hoping Charlie would pick up on it. “I’m no fucking good. I never have been.” I love that line so much.

You’re also totally right about the pace. Before revisiting this, I cringed my way through Sean Penn’s 140-minute war epic The Last Face. That movie makes ten minutes feel like a lifetime. Scent of a Woman flew by in comparison, and it’s more than half an hour longer! It’s such a wonderful testament to the storytelling. We’re so totally in from the jump that we’ll go anywhere Pacino takes us.

You mentioned that the film is very ‘90s. Does that aesthetic bother you or age the film at all?

Adam: The part where Charlie is exonerated of wrongdoing is hilarious. I like the movie so I’m willing to go along with it, but my goodness. I love that Charlie is exonerated and the student body doesn’t cheer until Pacino has those couple seconds to say “Hoo-ah!” first. Also, like you said, these kids are losing their shit over this and then NONE OF THEM TALK TO CHARLIE AFTERWARD. One other batshit crazy thing I love about Scent of a Woman is how Pacino knows every women’s perfume like he’s just been sitting in his tiny house spraying bottles and learning fragrances for the past few years. It’s such movie nonsense, like when people can quote The Bible at will (I’m sure there are people who can but not as many as are depicted on film) or characters having Knicks courtside seats but always an extra ticket.

I’m glad you mentioned that Thanksgiving scene because that part sort of got to me a little. I don’t do this anymore but I used to have a thing where I would volunteer bad things about myself to push people away. I think that’s what Pacino is doing a bit here. The weekend is very much about him tidying up his legacy and I think there’s a sad nobility to what he’s doing with his family, which is to anger them so that they don’t feel a greater loss. It’s dark, but also so human. I just love that scene so much.
To answer your question, I am usually fond of the early ‘90s aesthetic. Some films suffer because they’re kind of unsophisticated (I’m thinking of Unlawful Entry as an example) compared to modern thrillers, but Scent of a Woman is from a time I enjoyed. It was a time where Al Pacino was your IP, your special effect. This film was entirely a showcase for him and deservedly so, because he’s an acting legend worthy of recognition. I have said it before, but I miss the era (era) of the star vehicle. Thanks for the chat about Scent of a Woman, Rob. It doesn’t always happen, but this discussion with you bumped the movie for me from a 3 out of 4 star to a 3.5 out of 4 star film. Anything else you want to cover before we wrap up this week?

Rob: I just want to say that there is value to a cornfest like Scent of a Woman, and I’m glad I’m old enough to have gotten over any instinct to reject it just because its sincerity compromises the believability. It’s a movie I wouldn’t have revisited had you not suggest it, so thank you for that. It reminded me of a time where we just liked movies because they made us feel things. I like feeling things, you know? (Hoo-ah!)

Adam: Hoo-ah. Our next Al Pacino review will be during October when we review The Devil’s Advocate as it celebrates a 20th anniversary. I can’t wait. BUT next week we’re reviewing a movie that has been promised to be even more bananas: Mother! from director Darren Aronofsky and a probably miscast Jennifer Lawrence (I like her, but c’mon...she’s miscast about half of the time at least).

Rob: Does Javier Bardem play the mother? I guess we’ll find out. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.

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