Scent of a Woman (1992)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In “Scent of a Woman,” Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a shy Boston prep-school student who needs a good role model in his life. His mother and stepfather live in Oregon, and he and his stepfather don’t see eye-to-eye. And he’s not the most popular kid in a school where most of his classmates are spoiled by their wealthy fathers. Some of those classmates have pulled a prank on the headmaster, damaging his new Jaguar. Charlie knows who did it, but won’t snitch. However, if he doesn’t, he’ll be expelled. So, a disciplinary hearing is scheduled after Thanksgiving break to determine Charlie’s scholastic future.

Enter Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), a lonely, blind veteran. He’s an embittered man with two things that keep his spirit alive—his sense of humor and his romanticism. Charlie is working over the Thanksgiving weekend as his aide and companion. When he first meets him for an interview, Slade takes joy in making him feel as miserable as he feels. He uses sarcasm, anger, and abrasiveness to further confuse and slightly frighten Charlie.

In that first scene you see Slade, you get the feeling he enjoys doing this, as if his interviewees are his “victims.” And it’s probably not the best way for the audience to be introduced to this character, because he is so coarse that he comes so close to being a turnoff for the movie. But as performed by Pacino and written by Bo Goldman, the character gradually becomes more fascinating as the role and movie progresses. We can see why he acts this way and also why he isn’t such a miserable old fart.

“Scent of a Woman” takes these two characters, and their own stories, and brings them into a story that uses the reliable coming-of-age formula in which a young man is counseled by an older man who has lived through a lot and has a thing or two to teach his new pupil. In that case, these two characters seem just right for each other.

Anyway, it turns out Charlie gets the job of housesitting and looking after Slade. Charlie agrees to put up with more of Slade’s insults, mainly for the money. However, Slade has other plans in mind. Slade ropes Charlie into a trip to New York City to have a good time. Charlie tries to get away, as he is uncertain of whatever’s going to happen this weekend (and Slade has many tricks up his sleeve), and on top of that, he’s got the hearing to think about. But he has to do his job and keep Slade out of trouble…even though Slade is stubborn to keep making trouble.

Slade is blind, but he sees himself as a ladies’ man and tries to let Charlie in on his ideas about women. Slade sees women as the most exotic and beautiful creatures on Earth, and even believes he can tell a lot about a woman by her scent—hair color, eye color, perfume, etc. And while his ideas may seem old-fashioned (and being in the military most of his life, he has never really known a woman very well), Charlie can’t argue with him…especially after his charm works with an attractive young woman, Donna (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom, in one of the movie’s best scenes, he shares a tango. Slade and Charlie meet Donna at a hotel ballroom, and during conversation, Slade is finally able to convince her to tango with him.

Charlie doesn’t trust every of Slade’s actions, especially when Slade drinks heavily. He’s constantly on guard whenever Slade has something in mind that he neglects to let Charlie in on beforehand. Sure, riding in a limo and staying at a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria is nice, but Slade has already mentioned that he’s going to enjoy everything New York has to offer before committing suicide. What can Charlie do except respond politely to keep Slade from being more extreme, until he can find some way to stop him if he’s serious about killing himself?

Al Pacino was not going to let this film go down. He knows a lot rides on this character of Col. Slade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he forced himself to give the “performance-of-a-lifetime” for this role. Because “Scent of a Woman” rides mostly on his performance, the character, and the central relationship between Slade and Charlie, Pacino’s effectiveness is all the more welcome, to say the least. He delivers a great portrayal of a man who has a vindictive outlook on life with a few ways of making things interesting for him. And who can deliver a hearty “hoo-ah” every now and then better than him?

Chris O’Donnell is solid as Charlie, playing a nice kid to sympathize with. Most of the story is seen through his eyes.

This complicated relationship these two characters share—in that one is going to learn something from the other—is executed brilliantly. It’s believable and doesn’t go for the easy way through. The “easy way” would be for these two to befriend each other early on, but “Scent of a Woman” has them keep their distances, so that Slade is doing his thing and Charlie is staying on guard. And then when it comes to the tense moments when they need to help each other, you feel what each person is going through and sense how it all came to this.

Everything leads to the final act, in which Charlie’s scholastic future is on the line. Charlie is pushed into telling what he knows about the school prank, and there may or may not be a way out of this with his honor intact. It’s amazing how, without giving much away, everything that was set up before seems to come together for this.

“Scent of a Woman” is often criticized for its running-time length of two hours and 37 minutes. I don’t care about how long it had to be. It was as long as its storyline needed it to be. In fact, I could watch this go on for another half-hour, if given another plot element. As most film critics say it, no great movie is too long. And “Scent of a Woman” doesn’t feel as long as it would seem.

I think “Scent of a Woman” is a damn good movie. The performances are brilliant, the writing is intelligent, the music score by Thomas Newman is excellent, every setup has its payoff, and the whole film has a skillful and intriguing feel. What else can I say but…hoo-ah!

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