Scent of a Woman (1992)

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8.5/10

The poster says “from the director of Bevery Hills Cop”. Well, this movie is just about the polar opposite of that one. Director Martin Brest also did Meet Joe Black and finally ended his career with the horrendous Gigli. Ouch! Scent of a Woman, though, was his best work.

At first, this story sounds a lot like the beautiful The Intouchables (2011). It’s about an elderly man who needs someone to take care of him. To be his eyes, so to speak, because this elderly man, played by Al Pacino, is blind. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade doesn’t want to go to a veteran’s home, especially not for thanksgiving, so his daughter put out an ad for someone to “babysit” him for the holidays. The young student Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) accepts the job.

The first signs are not encouraging for Charlie. The first thing we notice of Frank is him yelling in a rough voice, but his daughter assures Charlie: “Deep down, he’s a lump of sugar”. Oh boy. Frank completely breaks poor Charlie down, but he is still asked to stay. It’s clear what’s going on here. Frank needs to step away from his cynical old bastard attitude and Charlie needs to grow some self-esteem and meet Frank on a higher level. So this is not The Untouchables, but it might be closer to Gran Torino (2008). You know how this story is going to go. Charlie lets people walk over him, and I bet there’ll be a love story of him being too shy do to anything, but the rough Frank will force him to grow and develop.

These predictions I made and some of them came out; so yes, this is a predictable film. But plotlines are not why we should watch it. It’s just a very satisfying film because everything is presented with such quality. Most of all, how wonderful it is to see Al Pacino yell at a shy young fellow. What the Germans call Schadenfreude, I feel both embarrassed and entertained and I want to take Charlie by his shoulders and shake him. Maybe if Pacino will yell some more, that will fix it. And there is the ever excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman as Charlie’s friend who walks over him.

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The movie is hilarious, at first. Both Al Pacino’s antics and the student antics at the University play out wonderfully, especially since the plagued headmaster is played by James Rebhorn, who is only known to me as a dumbass chief of staff from Independence Day (1996), so I like it when people take the piss out of him. Pacino as Frank is so great that this role is one of the best of his entire career. He’s rough, but you see that underneath there is a wounded pride and a hopelessness. Honestly though, Frank’s daughter and son in law aren’t the nicest to him, and Frank’s probably pissed off about feeling helpless. All the emotions in this story are quite understandable. The film gets sadder later on.

Every scene with Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell flies by. All the other stuff about the university is just a side story; just to set up some conflict for Charlie Simms to be worried about. Those scenes are fun too, sure, but it’s with Pacino that the film receives its true focus. Frank takes Charlie on a pleasure trip around New York, having some outrageous adventures, but a visit to Frank’s brother truly shows that there is something sad about Frank. We receive a beautifully contained portrait of two people and where they stand in life.

Technically, the film is very competent. Every scene plays up to an emotional moment, where Pacino and O’Donnell do some fencing around with words before we get to the bottom line of anything at the end of the scene. Meanwhile, the camera keeps closing in, first showing the two actors together, then flipping through close-ups for the confrontations and then backing off again, signaling a momentary closure. Both the dialogue and the camera cooperate and weave little portraits of scenes. The only shame is that it is all accompanied by Thomas Newman’s overly sentimental horn music.

In a sense, Charlie is the blind one and Frank is leading him, right out of the cave of boyish shyness. In another sense, Frank is in a cave too and it isn’t just blindness. The film gradually moves from comedy to drama and it doesn’t feel forced. A beautiful film altogether.

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