An epic picaresque in the tradition of Rain Man, Scent of a Woman is Al Pacino’s entry into the Dustin Hoffman virtousic-one-man-show sweepstakes. He plays Frank Slade, a retried Army Colonel who lost his sight in an accident — it seems he was juggling hand grenades — and, in late middle age, has become incorrigible, Jack Daniels-swilling loudmouth. Frank doesn’t hold conversations, exactly. He simply sizes up whoever’s in front of him and ejaculates an opinion, the words spewing out in a drawled semi-shout that sounds like Pacino’s Brooklyn growl by way of Tennessee. Beneath that steel-wool armor; though (in case you didn’t guess), beats the heart of a wounded romantic. Frank the rancorous lout goes mushy in the presence of a woman. He knows the scent of every perfume on earth.
Pacino doesn’t make a big deal out of playing blind. He just lets his droopy expressive eyes go dead, at the same time cuing us, through the tiniest reactions and gestures, to see that Frank is aware of everything around him. On the other hand, Pacino makes quite a big deal of playing Frank as a lyrically raspy misanthrope — a bastard with a touch of the poet. In Scent of a Woman, it’s impossible to separate Frank’s grandstanding from Pacino’s own. The performance is a turn, but a juicy, resonant one; it’s scenery chewing of a high order.
The movie gives Frank an appealing partner in Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), a prep school senior who has been hired to look after him during Thanksgiving vacation. The two end up in Manhattan, where Frank spends the weekend living out his high-life fantasy (limo, room at the Waldorf, visit a pricey escort), a last big splurge before he carries out his intended plan to shoot himself.
For a while, Scent of a Woman is a smart, funny ride. Working from Bo Goldman’s pleasingly literate script, director Martin Brest lets the scenes unfold deliberately, in something approaching real time — a daring move that pays off, especially when Charlie is getting to know what a complicated (and deep down swell) guy Frank is. Halfway through, though, the movie starts running out of gas. It loses its sense of humor and turns pompous and banal, especially during the overblown climax, in which Frank shows up at Charlie’s straitlaced school to rescue him from an ethical quandary. In the end, Scent of a Woman offers little more than lumbering simulation of Rain Man‘s nimble magic. But Pacino’s performance — scabrous, tender, ripely theatrical — is a master showman’s trick. B