Film Review: Sea of Love (1989)


Al Pacino is great actor whose greatness reflects not only in appearing in many great films, but also in ability to elevate what would otherwise be mediocre or forgettable. One of such examples is his great performance in Sea of Love, 1989 thriller directed by Harold Becker.

Pacino plays the protagonist, veteran NYPD detective Frank Keller. After twenty years in the force, he is very good at his job, but his personal life is mess, mostly as a result of failed marriage and his ex wife marrying Gruber (played by Richard Jenkins), fellow detective from the same Manhattan precinct. The latest case he is investigates is a murder of a man who was shot execution-style while lying nude on bed. Chance encounter with Sherman Touhey (played by John Goodman), NYPD detective who investigates similar murder in Queens, make both men exchange notes and conclude that the evidence – fingerprints, traces of lipstick on cigarette butts – point to the same perpetrator, most likely a woman. Both victims have put personal ads in singles magazines and Keller is convinced that the killer answered to them. He makes an unusual plan to catch killer by posting personal ad himself and collecting fingerprints from prospective dates during restaurant dates. One of the women who answers the date is divorced shoe store manager Helen Cruger (played by Ellen Barkin). Although the encounter at first don’t go anywhere and Helen even fails to leave fingerprint on a wine bottle, another chance encounter on the street result in eruption of mutual attraction. Keller, who was plagued by loneliness for many years succumbs to it and, to the horror of Touhey and against his own better judgement, starts torrid affair with a woman. While romance blossoms, Keller is still troubled by some evidence that suggests that Helen might indeed be a killer.

Script by famed novelist Richard Price was, just like in case of Fatal Attraction and other popular Hollywood films at the time, partially inspired by AIDS and motive of men becoming victims of casual sex could easily interpreted as the metaphor for the pandemic. The film, however, uses more generic motive of midlife crisis and even more generic murder mystery. Director Harold Becker does solid job, although film suffers because of bad pace, especially in the first segments and it takes almost an hour before the audience is introduced to character of Helen. Music by Trevor Jones tries to establish “noirish” atmosphere, but doesn’t fit properly with the title 1959 song by Phil Phillips, which 45 rpm disc record is used by killer as the signature.

The person that actually carries this film on his shoulder is Al Pacino. He accepted the role after four year hiatus, caused by disastrous reception of his 1985 film Revolution. His performance as Frank Keller, a middle aged, frustrated, lonely and disappointed man who finds only reason for living in his complicated and dangerous job, was nothing short of brilliant. Pacino played role in realistic and relatively subdued manner, much unlike the over the top performances that would mark the rest of his career. He makes audience believe his relatively normal down-to-earth character and thus accept not only him but the film that would otherwise be burdened by some serious plot holes. Ellen Barkin, one of the most underrated actresses of the era, is great in one of her first starring roles and delivers believable performance of woman who is both ordinary and dangerously attractive. She gets great chemistry with Pacino, although the obligatory sex scene is ruined by all-to-obvious use of body doubles. John Goodman is also great in the role of Keller’s partner who at times serves a comic relief, which is a good choice for this otherwise dark and depressive story. Sea of Love suffers a lot from uninspired ending, which is quite predictable despite Price’s script throwing many red herrings (and especially predictable for experienced cinephiles who can recognise certain character actors in small roles of seemingly unimportant people). Despite this and other flaws, Sea of Love became big hit and resurrected Pacino’s career. Many of those who watch it now might agree that such success was deserved.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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