Monday, September 20, 2010

Precision In Life

It’s interesting how any number of big stars from the 70s started to drop away by the time the 80s hit. With some of them it may have been personal issues, with others various career troubles, others just kind of drifted out there until finally reemerging at some point in the back end of the decade as if they realized people might actually forget who they were. By the time SEA OF LOVE hit theaters in September 1989 Al Pacino had been off screens since REVOLUTION four years earlier but of course no one has ever seen REVOLUTION (I sure haven’t) and before that it had been two years since SCARFACE and, whatever else you want to say about it, I always wind up separating that role in my head from the rest of Pacino’s career as if Tony Montana is his own separate entity somehow. So although he had been working on the stage, the perception certainly was that he had been off the radar for some time. Once SEA OF LOVE happened it was as if he’d never been away and you can almost see the star’s screen career get reenergized before your eyes while you watch it. The unofficial start of the next stage in his career, it really is the turning point where the younger, scrappy Pacino morphs into the older, gravely-voiced Pacino. With the film becoming a sizable hit it led to a strong run over the coming decade for him that included playing people like Ricky Roma, Big Boy Caprice, Frank Slade, Carlito Brigante, Vincent Hanna, Lowell Bergman and of course the return of Michael Corleone. SEA OF LOVE isn’t a great movie and maybe plays now as sort of semi-dated, late 80s pre-BASIC INSTINCT filler but since it knows enough to focus on the character story at is center instead of the main plotline gimmickry it works pretty well throughout. All right, I may as well admit it: I’ve got enough of an attachment to this thing that I think it’s kind of awesome, with terrific chemistry between the two leads and a story that knows how to keep propelling itself forward.

Just as he celebrates his twentieth year on the force, alcoholic New York Police Detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) is investigating a man’s murder, found shot dead in his bed with a 45 of “Sea of Love” playing nearby. The presence of the record makes Keller think that it happened on some sort of date and when a second turns up it reveals various connections between the two men including how they had both recently placed rhyming ads in the personal making him think that the killer might be a woman. Shortly after Keller teams up with Queens Detective Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) to investigate he comes up with an idea to place their own rhyming ad in the paper with the hopes of getting fingerprints from a wine glass and nailing the culprit. One of his dates, Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin), seems so unimpressed by him that she doesn’t even stay long enough to have a drink but a later chance encounter with Frank seems to change her mind about. Frank is of course instantly attracted to her as well but with no fingerprints to go on as much as he’s falling for her he still can’t fully allay his suspicions that Helen might be the very killer he’s looking for.

Brooding around at the forefront of SEA OF LOVE’s story is the vibe of loneliness in the big city as people drift down the dark streets with the feeling that none of the characters are ever going to really know each other, desperately going from one blind date to another but sometimes doing nothing but going home and doing some hard drinking into the wee hours. Considering much of it was shot in Toronto with lots of interiors it actually pulls off the New York feel pretty well, with director Harold Becker (THE ONION FIELD, TAPS, MALICE) clearly doing what he can to maximize the shooting time in New York as much as possible so every shot is framed to take in all the flavor it can. The crux of the screenplay written by Richard Price is ultimately a shade gimmicky—Helen is either the killer or she isn’t, right?—but while the script keeps the suspense going and the director keeps the tension building as well as it can (for several reasons, somebody watching this film for the first time now will probably piece things together pretty quickly but I’ll avoid spoilers anyway) so it works well enough that plausibility can almost be forgotten for a few minutes. Becker clearly knows to keep the story grounded so it’s really just about this guy trying to keep going through every drink he takes and find a way to make this impossible relationship he’s found himself in the middle of to work.

What’s most memorable about SEA OF LOVE is Pacino stumbling around, looking for something to say to this woman he’s both drawn to yet unsure of, while at the same time trying to figure out his own life. He’s a drunk who is vastly flawed as a person but the movie deliberately shows some good sides to him and Pacino makes him vulnerable enough to give the feeling that if he can get through this it will be worth it. Maybe Frank Keller’s particular obsession with this case has to do with his own loneliness, seeing how close he might actually be getting to ending up like one of the victims in his case, or maybe just the fear of ending up old, drunk and alone like his father played by William Hickey (actually, a whole movie with just the two of them sounds like a good idea). Either way, he’s very aware that he’s just another lost soul in the pre-internet New York, one of many people out there looking to drunk dial an ex-wife in the middle of the night and it’s ultimately Pacino’s total commitment in playing these elements that helps me to brush past some of the film’s missteps. One of the best things I can say about Becker’s direction is how confident he seems to be in letting the actors work together within scenes, whether it’s Pacino and Barkin setting off sparks or just hitting pause on everything to let John Goodman take control of the room and sing a verse of the song everyone’s talking about. Part of my fondness for the film to this day is how seeing it back then was really the first time I got to experience what Al Pacino could do in the present tense, in a New York that was very familiar to me, allowing me to just be amazed at how awesome he was. Having Ellen Barkin in there, never sexier in that red jacket of hers, didn’t hurt it either.

It’s not a landmark piece of work but it’s almost as if it wasn’t trying to be that anyway. It’s easy to imagine a version of this film that attempted to be the ultimate look at New York singles life while providing a hugely dramatic character study that could have given Pacino his first Oscar and Price’s screenplay was actually much more of a character study in earlier drafts before things were reworked. Instead, it goes for being a more traditional sex-drenched potboiler as well as a showcase reminder for how great its star can be, matched up with a female lead who doesn’t come into the story until nearly forty-five minutes in but has the confidence to look him in the eye and match his tension in scene after scene. And maybe sometimes that potboiler feel is all a film needs to be and how it works so well certainly sets it apart from the zillions of late-night Cinemax rip-offs. For the record, the sex scenes here get the job done fairly well with incessant saxophone score by Trevor Jones (which probably turned up in lots of trailers afterwards) and what I’m guessing is an Ellen Barkin body double, but aren’t really anything all that spectacular—that’s something Paul Verhoeven was definitely much more interested in when he worked with this sort of material a few years later.

I highly doubt the people making this movie were thinking of the production as a dry run for Pacino to see if he wanted to get back in the game again but looking at it now that’s almost what it really is. After all the tension his very presence has provided all the way through, the actor’s relaxed and joking nature in the final scene, maybe moreso than he’s ever been seen like this, feels totally genuine as if playing this part has caused him to realize how rewarding it is to be Al friggin’ Pacino starring in a movie. Watching it again this time I realized how much the very end is kind of a carbon copy of the final shot of TOOTSIE, letting the lead characters disappear off into the crowd as the credits roll (damn, somebody on the imdb message board already picked up on this) but I honestly found this kind of comforting, giving the ending a feel of genuine satisfaction in a way that one sometimes could get from what got released during this era. There’s not a huge amount to say about SEA OF LOVE as a film and it’s not without certain flaws, but as an enjoyable thriller and showcase for its stars in the end it’s exactly what I want it to be. I guess I sort of love it. It’s not a great film in any sense, but sometimes you love what you love.

There’s no two ways about it: Al Pacino is flat-out fantastic as Frank Keller, biting into this juicy Richard Price dialogue while sending this movie to another level and through his peering eyes (cop’s eyes, he’s told) you can see the desperation as he looks all around him, worried that he won’t escape this vortex he’s created for himself. Ellen Barkin is also dynamite, combining a natural working class vibe with a sexy elegance while looking great in a way that can drive me crazy with those off-kilter looks. The natural tension she offers brings the right kind of ambivalence to this character, a single mother who sleeps around more than she seems willing to talk about (Jacqueline Brookes’ two-line appearance as her mother indicates a lot going offscreen) and may have even darker secrets to her as well. John Goodman was just beginning to break out at this point and he’s an extremely likable voice of reason as the partner with his own flaws. William Hickey nails his one real scene as Keller’s father and Richard Jenkins gives an effective slow burn vibe as a fellow investigator who married Keller’s ex-wife. Deborah Taylor has a sharp bit as a woman who sees through her blind date’s charade immediately and among the many familiar faces who turn up John Spencer is the Lieutenant, Michael Rooker is a cable TV repairman, Barbara Baxley is the next door neighbor of one of the victims, Christine Estabrook is a Miss Lonelyhearts-type hopeful date and Samuel L. Jackson plays, um, “Black Guy”. Watching his appearance in the first five minutes now makes you half expect that he and Pacino are going to team up to chase the killer somehow. Keller’s ex-wife is referred to but never turns up; Lorraine Bracco actually played the role (well, who else would have been given the part of Pacino’s ex-wife in 1989?) in scenes that were cut from the release version. They were restored for network airings—I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a tape of that around here—but aren’t on the DVD.

It’s not a perfect film at all and let me just say that, in spite of what a certain early scene claims, NO ONE living in 1989 New York wouldn’t know what Phil Rizzuto looked like. That’s really always bugged me. Still, I’m surprised now to look up the Vincent Canby review in The New York Times where he refers to it as “a really quite bad movie” which frankly seems like an overreaction even if it does have a few flaws. I suppose, for me, that this moderately scaled thriller from a time where this sort of thing was fairly common somehow feels just right. The film’s cinematic ambitions are modest, it’s filmed in a number of cost-effective Toronto interiors, isn’t all that visually dynamic and its modest scale might not allow it to play all that well these days. But in his comeback role Al Pacino is truly great, Ellen Barkin is truly hot and the two of damn make a damn good screen couple (they would appear together again in OCEAN’S THIRTEEN) while the movie also seems refreshingly adult now in its look at loneliness and dissatisfaction while approaching middle age. Though it’s not without problems I can’t bring myself to say very much bad about it. Maybe sometimes you like these things more than they might deserve but when the movie has earned that kind of attachment to it through the years that response doesn’t need any defending as far as I’m concerned.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

I've always had a real special place for this film as it did mark a real return for Pacino. I was around sixteen or so and I still remember the thrill of seeing my main man back in action on the big screen...very cool and exciting stuff and I was thrilled when it did turn out to be a hit. Love the soundtrack as well and played it constantly thoughout my high school years.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I've got a tape of the soundtrack around here somewhere--doesn't it repeat the main theme twice? I didn't feel like trying to dig it out, but I can never fully get that music out of my head anyway. Glad you like the movie too, Jeremy! And it holds up pretty well!