Scent of a Woman (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Scent of a Woman is about Charles Simms (Chris O'Donnell), a Boston prep school senior, and the Thanksgiving weekend he spends working as the aide and companion of Lt. Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino), an embittered, lonely, blind veteran. The job, which begins as an onerous task performed principally for money, becomes a tour of self-discovery when Slade decides to make an unexpected visit to New York City. There, amidst all the holiday hoopla, the lieutenant's actions force Charlie into making an emotionally painful - and potentially physically dangerous - decision.

There are certain actors that, when they appear in a film, are almost invariably indicators that the production is of high quality. They are an elite few, with names like Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman, and Pacino. Considering some of the roles that Al Pacino has played during his celebrated career (in The Godfather trilogy, for example), it would be hyperbole to say that he gives the "performance of a lifetime" in Scent of a Woman...or would it? For two hours, he brings Frank Slade to life in a way that few others in Hollywood could. As portrayed by Pacino, there's far more to this man that a rancorous outlook on life and a couple of hearty "hoo-ha"s.

Chris O'Donnell, a fresh-but-not-unknown face, is solid, if somewhat obscured in the more experienced man's shadow. Although the role of Charlie is understated by O'Donnell, he nevertheless manages to fashion a rapport with the audience. This is necessary for the film to succeed, since it's through his eyes that the story unfolds.

In essence, Scent of a Woman is another in a never-ending series of bonding pictures where each person has something unique to offer to the other. If there's anything special about the film, it's that on this occasion, the emotional realism of the characters, especially Slade, is heartwrenchingly believable. His relationship with Charlie works because Pacino won't let it fail.

There are numerous dynamic scenes in Scent of a Woman, along with a surprising amount of comedy. Director/Producer Martin Brest knows how to blend humor with drama to good effect. His mix is nearly flawless, and he manages to do almost (and I emphasize almost) the entire film without resorting to manipulative tricks. Pacino's tango scene with Gabrielle Anwar is one such magical moment - unfettered, unforced, and highly enjoyable.

Unfortunately, considering how sound the bulk of the picture is, the final moments, with their overt pandering to a Hollywood-style ending, are a severe liability. Certainly, such "triumphs" are fun to watch, but they cheapen Scent of a Woman. Would it have cost the production team that much to inject a little realism into the film's last reel?

The movie is as long as its storyline demands. It doesn't seem like two and one-half hours, and less time with these characters would have cheated the audience. Aided by an emotive score from Thomas Newman, the picture has opportunities to soar. Hampered by the script's limitations, however, Scent of a Woman falls short of being a masterful production.

Scent of a Woman (United States, 1992)

Director: Martin Brest
Cast: Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell
Screenplay: Bo Goldman
Cinematography: Donald E. Thorin
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:36
U.S. Release Date: 1992-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1