Sea Of Love

Sea Of Love

***1/2

Reviewed by: James Benefield

Al Pacino had a bit of a dodgy 1980s up until the release of Sea Of Love. Apart from the release of Scarface, all his other movies - the slightly repugnant (both morally and cinematically) debacle that was Cruising, the overblown and underwhelming Revolution and the awkward Author! Author!, - could probably be left off the CV for fear of embarrassment.

Sea Of Love was his first movie back after a four-year hiatus in which he retreated to stage work (something he would come back to on several occasions, including in the stage-film fusion of 1994’s Looking For Richard). It was both an unusual and a low-key comeback; half romantic comedy, half sinister thriller. And it was perfectly judged, both adding another string to Pacino’s bow and cementing his star power and natural charisma.

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A killer is at large in downtown Manhattan. The murderer seeks his or her victims in the pages of the lonely hearts column. Al Pacino plays Detective Frank Keller, a cop who is going undercover to search out this praying mantis. In his investigation he meets single mother, and shoe shop manager, Helen (Ellen Barkin) and falls desperately in love. However, he soon starts suspecting that she might, in fact, be the one he is looking for.

Pacino is excellent in this film, delivering one of his last consistently great turns. Soon after, he would make Godfather Part III, and he has ever since far too often confused acting with alternately shouting his lines in different rhythms or simply phoning in his performance. Barkin is also good value. In some ways her presence epitomises the film; once you get past the dated façade (big hair, big clothes, big eye make up), you soon discover the action is consistently engaging, teasing and surprising.

There are famous faces in the supporting cast. A young, and very thin-looking, Samuel L Jackson starts the film off as a cooler-than-thou criminal. Indie stalwart Richard Jenkins appears as a fellow cop (and the man who took Detective Keller’s wife away), while also proving he never really had very much hair, even 20 years ago. John Goodman, fresh out of Roseanne, gets many of the film’s biggest laughs as a fellow detective.

It’s a film which looks back at the Eighties and looks forward into the Nineties. There are echoes of everything from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in the clever use of music (the eponymous track, Sea Of Love) to Desperately Seeking Susan and Working Girl in its intelligent depiction of a light, frothy and safe Manhattan environment. However, the film’s genre experimentation, playfulness and lightness of touch help it to look forward to the heady delights of Nineties cinema from The Grifters to Pulp Fiction.

There are a few casualties of the film’s genre melding. The most prominent is that it lacks a consistent tone. Although consistently entertaining, the film’s dance between romance, comedy and thriller is a little disorientating. A couple of the subplots, such as that of Frank’s relationship with his ex-wife, suffer as a result - this plot aspect, in particular, does not easily cross genres, and so is dropped fairly early on. The fact the casualties of this include Richard Jenkins, who is largely left out of proceedings, is nigh-on unforgivable.

What the film does well, however, is to provide an air of sheer unpredictability. There is a genuinely surprising twist in the final third, and a constantly evolving set of characters, opening up many narrative possibilities. For a decade which spawned and developed some of a cinephile’s filmic pet hates such as money-spinning franchises and uber-blockbusters, it’s refreshing.

Sea Of Love is a highly watchable film that rises above being a simple comeback vehicle for Pacino. Although Pacino’s excellent performance is the film’s notable feature, it’s a piece that is worth revisiting, if simply for the fact it tries to do something with its source material, and largely it succeeds.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2009
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A detective hunting a serial killer pursues a suspect by dating her, but finds himself falling in love.
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Director: Harold Becker

Writer: Richard Price

Starring: Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman, Michael Rooker, William Hickey, Richard Jenkins, Paul Calderon, Gene Canfield, Larry Joshua, John Spencer, Samuel L Jackson

Year: 1989

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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