Along with my current series of 80 Back to School reviews (48 down, 32 to go!), another one of my long time goals has been to watch and review every single film to ever be nominated for the best picture. So, imagine how happy I was to discover that by watching the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, I could make progress towards completing two goals at once! Not only was Scent of A Woman nominated for best picture of the year (losing to Unforgiven) but it also features a major subplot about life and discipline at an exclusive New England prep school! Even better, it’s been showing up on Showtime fairly regularly for the past month or so.
“Wow,” I thought as my boyfriend and I sat down to watch this movie, “could life get any easier? Or better?”
And then we watched the film.
You know how occasionally you watch a film just because you’ve heard that it was nominated (or perhaps even won) an Oscar or because it has an oddly high rating over at the imdb or maybe because someone said, “Roger Ebert loved this film so, if you don’t watch and love it, that means that, by that standard of the current online film community, you really don’t love movies?” And then you watch the movie and you’re just like, “What the Hell?”
Well, that was kind of my reaction to Scent of a Woman.
Look, the film’s not all bad. It has a few good performances. It looks great. It’s certainly better than Gigli, the film that director Martin Brest is perhaps best remembered for. It features a great scene where Al Pacino (playing a blind man) dances the tango with a woman that he’s just met. (Then again, I have a notorious weakness for dance scenes…) It’s not so much that the film is bad as much as it’s just that the movie itself is not particularly good.
Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a scholarship student at an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts. Much like Brendan Fraser in School Ties, 1992’s other prep school melodrama, Charlie is a poor kid attending the school on a scholarship. While his rich friends prepare to go home for the Thanksgiving weekend, Charlie knows that there’s no way that he can afford to fly back to Oregon. In order to raise the money so that he can at least go back home for Christmas (how poor is this kid’s family!?), Charlie gets a temporary job for the weekend. His job? To look after Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who is blind and yells a lot.
Anyway, as you can probably guess, Frank convinces Charlie to drive him to New York and they have all of the adventures that usually happen whenever a naive teenager spends the weekend with a suicidal blind man. Frank bellows a lot and tells about how, through his sense of smell, he can always tell when there’s a beautiful woman nearby. Frank also yells a lot. Did I already mention that? Because, seriously, he yells a lot.
Charlie has other problems than just Frank. It seems that a rather mild prank was pulled on the headmaster (James Rebhorn) of Charlie’s school. As a result, a bucket of paint was poured down on both the headmaster and his new car! Now, the headmaster is looking for those responsible. He just needs two witnesses. He’s already gotten one student to confess. And now, he’s blackmailing Charlie with a letter of recommendation to Harvard. All Charlie has to do is name names and his future is set…
Will Charlie name names and sacrifice his honor just to get into a college that could assure him a great life? Or will Frank convince Charlie that honor is the only thing that matters? And finally, will the film end with a big hearing in front of the entire school in which the headmaster attempts to badger Charlie, just to be interrupted by a sudden appearance from bellowing Frank Slade?
You can probably already guess and, since we have a no spoiler policy here at the Lens, I’ll just assume that you guessed right. (Or you could just look at the picture at the top of this review…)
The prep school subplot pretty much just adds to the film’s already excessive running time. But it is interesting to watch because the other student — the one who names names — is played by a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Or as he’s credited here, Philip S. Hoffman.) This was one of Hoffman’s first screen roles and he gives a memorable performance as an unlikable character. If you were to have seen Scent of a Woman in 1992, you would not have guessed that Philip Seymour Hoffman would eventually be an Oscar winner but you would know that he was a very talented character actor.
Otherwise, Scent of a Woman is a fairly forgettable movie. If I hadn’t known ahead of time that it was nominated for best picture, I never would have been able to guess. I’m not enough of an expert to be able to name every good 1992 film that was not nominated to make room for Scent of a Woman but I imagine that when that year’s Oscar nominations were announced, there were quite a few people left scratching their heads.
Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?