It’s no secret that there are Oscars awarded for performances that may not have earned them for careers that contained performances that did. How else to explain Paul Newman winning for The Color of Money? Well, he didn’t win for Hud and Cool Hand Luke and more than half a dozen other films. I’ve always sort of been under the impression that Al Pacino’s Oscar for Scent of a Woman was of the same variety. It’s caused me to dread the film a little.
This is, in fact, evidence of Pacino in over-the-top mode, but that’s not always a bad thing. Still, there’s that niggling feeling that the Academy realized he’d lost for Glengary Glen Ross, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather Part II and a few others and maybe it was time to give the man his due. Even for this role, which is Pacino writ as large as possible without becoming a complete caricature.
Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a scholarship student at Baird, the sort of prep school generally reserved for the children of the elite. Unlike most of his classmates, Charlie can’t afford to spend Thanksgiving in Vermont and Christmas in Switzerland. Instead, he’s forced to look for a job to cover him whenever possible. One of those jobs happens to be babysitting Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Pacino) over Thanksgiving. Slade is blind and cantankerous to a fault and gives every impression of not merely disliking Charlie, but actively loathing him.
Just before Thanksgiving break, Charlie and fellow student George Willis (Philip Seymour Hoffman) witness three other students setting up a prank for the next day. That prank involves dousing the headmaster and his new governing board-bought Jaguar with something like custard. A passing teacher caught a bit of what was happening and saw that both Charlie and George may have had a good view of the criminals. Both are called on the carpet. Charlie, because of his poor origins, is promised a letter of recommendation to Harvard if he comes across with the names of the guilty.
Naturally, this is on Charlie’s mind as he goes to take care of Slade, so it’s something of a surprise when he realizes that his Thanksgiving break is going to be spent squiring the lieutenant colonel around New York. Slade, as it happens, has planned quite a weekend for himself. He’s saved up his pension checks and has the whole thing mapped out. He’s going to stay in a first-class hotel, eat at the best restaurants, hire himself a top-flight escort, ruin a family Thanksgiving, and then kill himself. Charlie, naturally doesn’t want that to happen, and a great deal of the film is the battle between the two as Slade looks to end his life and Charlie tries to save it.
The biggest problem with this film is quite a big one—it’s too bloody long. While there are certainly nuances to the film, there’s no reason its running time needs to be north of 150 minutes, but north of that it is. Some sequences simply go on too long, as if director Martin Brest didn’t know when the scene was played out. Even the best and most memorable scenes go on longer than they need to.
A case in point is the tango sequence, which is arguably the best in the film. Slade and Charlie sit in a restaurant when Slade, who can always identify a woman’s perfume, picks up on a woman nearby. This is Donna (Gabrielle Anwar), waiting for her date. Inspired, the two go and sit with her, and after a minute or two of banter, Slade takes her out on the dance floor and the two perform a pretty decent tango—moreso when you consider that Slade (if not Pacino) is blind. It’s a great moment that ends up being partially spoiled when Donna’s date does show up and the scene refuses to end. The same is true of the Ferarri driving sequence, which lingers a couple of minutes over its potential for enjoyment.
That seems to be the case with everything here. The Thanksgiving dinner sequence could have a few minutes trimmed out of it, as could the end, and virtually everything else. With 20 minutes excised here and there, this would be a vastly improved film.
It belongs to Pacino, of course, who is always fun to watch in this despite his accent that seems to come and go when he wants it to. It’s also worth remembering that Chris O’Donnell once had a film career, and there was a time when he was a promising young actor.
The sell of the film, really, the biggest and most emotionally satisfying set piece in a film of set pieces, is the conclusion, when Charlie is “tried” at school for his being unwilling to turn in the perpetrators of the crime he witnessed. In a surprise to him (but probably not to the audience), Slade shows up and acts as his legal counsel, eventually giving a stirring speech about Charlie’s worth as a person and the failed ethics of the institution as a whole. It’s the sort of thing that can really only happen in a movie. There’s a certain pleasure in that, I admit. It’s sometimes fun to think of things like this actually happening even if they only time they do comes with a camera crew and a script.
Scent of a Woman, for all of its length issues, is a good and had the real potential to be great. It doesn’t quite get all the way there, though, because it simply wasn’t edited into something that makes the time commitment equal to that of the story being told.
Why to watch Scent of a Woman: Hoo-ah!
Why not to watch: It’s too damn long.