Throughout the history of film, great screen actors frequently appear in films that really aren't worthy of them. Bogart, Tracy, Garbo, Brando, anyone you care to name, really, all appeared in films that not only were not great, but clearly had no chance of being great from the word go. Their scripts were unoriginal and average, their directors were not top-flight, sometimes the production values weren't all that great. But the classic film actors were always able to make such films worth watching, despite the fact that the same film made with a perfectly competent actor in the role would have been just another piece of mediocrity. Perhaps even more than their successes in strong roles, great film actors can be defined by the interest they bring to lesser roles.
Al Pacino establishes that he is that kind of actor in Sea of Love. The script, while acceptable, is only a bit above average, and of a genre we really see too much of today, the police thriller. Director Harold Becker has done a couple of good films, but none that stand far out from the pack. The entire film is reasonably well made, the supporting cast gives a couple of strong performances, but, if it weren't for Pacino, this film would be indistinguishable from any of a dozen other police thrillers released this year.
The script's central premise owes something to Jagged Edge - instead of an attorney falling for a client who may be guilty of murder, it's a cop falling for a suspect who may be guilty of murder, with sexes reversed. Pacino plays a twenty-year man whose life is hollow and meaningless. While investigating the murder of a couple of men who had advertised in a singles paper, he finds himself increasingly attracted to a woman who may have answered their ads. Is he really falling for a murderer? His instincts are too ambivalent to trust, evidence is present but weak, and he has so far lost track of his center that he has no resources to fall back on.
While not fully original, the central idea behind Sea of Love has possibilities. And having a woman as the suspect, rather than a man, adds another layer of complexity. But the script does not play with the idea all that well. The central attraction of the story is a man who loves a woman so much that he can't give her up, even though he spends half his time expecting her to kill him. But the film takes nearly an hour to introduce the woman, and screenwriter Richard Price does not build up the suspense as well as he could have. There are too few moments when the woman may suddenly pull out a gun and blow the hero away.
However, Pacino takes over where Price leaves off. Pacino is always best as a man under heavy pressure. As Michael Corleone, Pacino contained the pressure. In Dog Day Afternoon, he let it explode. Here, he charts a middle course, trying to keep it in, but ultimately unable to hold it back. While not up to the standard of these earlier performances, Pacino demonstrates that he has lost none of his fire. Pacino also does a nice job of differentiating this character from his previous parts - this isn't just Michael Corleone as a disillusioned cop, or Serpico as an alcoholic sellout.
Pacino, fortunately, has the advantage of good costars to play off. Ellen Barkin is a nice choice for the mystery woman. Barkin's odd looks always suggest more beneath the surface than what shows, and that is precisely the quality that this part demands. Price has not gone quite far enough in drawing her character to make it completely successful, but Barkin does a good job of filling in the blanks. John Goodman is strong in the only other major part in the film, Pacino's partner. Oddly, his performance, good as it is, probably detracts more from the films intentions than it adds, since his basic good humor and niceness undercut the suspense. By offering Pacino's character a mechanism to release some of the steam, Goodman also releases some of the film's tension.
Price has not constructed his screenplay as well as he could have, but his dialog is excellent, excepting only the final scene. That scene lacks the snap necessary to provide a satisfactory wrapup to the story. If Price had any really great lines saved up for a rainy day, this scene was the place to use them. This deficiency is partially compensated by a few sharp observations that Price manages to fit in around the edges of the story. His plot plays the police thriller game fairly, but is not sufficiently clever to stand out.
Harold Becker proves to be a reasonable choice for the director. He does particularly well at capturing Pacino's performance. He succeeds in providing a few tense moments, and keeps up the mood well. Becker also does nicely in shading in some minor characters who were probably only vague suggestions in the script. On the whole, his direction is unobtrusive. One can imagine that Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet could have done much more, but Price does enough. The technical credits also are fairly average.
Sea of Love is worth seeing, for those who like the genre or those who like Pacino. The various elements of the film are at least average, and Pacino's performance raises the overall effort to a higher level. Sea of Love may never be remembered as a great film, but twenty years from now it's likely to be regarded as a nice lesser film of a great actor.
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