Character development smells a little funny in 'Scent of a Woman'



(MCA/UNIVERSAL, rated R, 1992)

It would be difficult to quibble with the Academy Award Al Pacino won for his performance in "Scent of a Woman." He so dominates the picture that one might wonder if the film could have survived without him.

In fact, the nominations the film received for Best Picture and Best Director are laughable. This film has serious problems. The story was apparently so strong that it carried the film despite some serious lapses by director Martin Brest.

The first problem is the characterization of Charlie, a 17-year-old boy who has moved from Oregon, where his parents run a convenience store, to an East Coast prep school. Charlie has hopes of going to Harvard. But this kid is portrayed (by Chris O'Donnell) as such a naive, sheltered wimp from start to finish that it is difficult to fathom how he ever got himself out of the Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps the characterization could have been made more believable had Brest provided some background about Charlie's character. But the most we get is a brief comment about his father's leaving the family and about Charlie not having much respect for his stepfather.

The same problem arises when Charlie meets ex-Army officer Frank Slade (Pacino), a stranger whom he has agreed to baby sit over the Thanksgiving weekend for $300. Slade is blind and lives with his niece near the prep school. He is surly and demanding and completely intimidates Charlie.

Although we learn in the film's best scene at Thanksgiving dinner how Slade was blinded (through his own carelessness), we never understand what kind of person Slade had been before his accident. Did the blindness make him this bitter? Was he unhappy about the way the Army treated him? Was he careless because he had the same death wish he appears to have now?

Brest never addresses these questions. During the dinner scene, Slade's nephew implies that Slade was just as insensitive and abrasive before the accident. But the reference dies there.

And it's too bad, because Brest does a fair job handling the rather routine odd-couple story of the officer and the kid as they spend a weekend raising hell on an outing in New York City and developing admiration for each other. We can feel the pain of emptiness and loneliness in Slade as he nears the end of the adventure, which he has determined will be his last before he commits suicide.

But even here he overplays his hand. Slade is never completely )) believable. Not only is his personality a bit over the top, he is also far too capable given his blindness. His hand never misses, even a little, when picking things up. He describes every woman to a T. He pulls off a flawless tango on a dance floor he's never seen. And, most ridiculous of all, he drives a Ferrari 70 mph down narrow city streets, taking corners at high speeds without incident.

It comes as no surprise that the final scene is a preposterously staged crowd-pleasing, authority-bucking speech by Slade in defense of Charlie at a prep school disciplinary hearing in front of the faculty and students.

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