Skip to main content

I have done some desperate, foolish things come 3 o'clock in the morning.

Sea of Love
(1989)

(SPOILERS) It’s difficult to imagine Sea of Love starring Dustin Hoffman, for whom Richard Price wrote the screenplay but who bowed out over requests for multiple rewrites. Perhaps Hoffman secretly recognised what most of us don’t need telling; there’s no way he fits into an erotic thriller (I’m not sure I’d even buy him as a cop). Although, he would doubtless have had fun essaying the investigative side, involving a succession of dates on the New York singles scene as a means to ensnare a killer. Al Pacino, on the other hand, has just the necessary seedy, threadbare, desperate quality, and he’s a powerhouse in a movie that, without its performances (Ellen Barkin and John Goodman may also take bows), would be a mostly pedestrian and unremarkable entry in the then burgeoning serial killer genre.


Well, I say unremarkable. The rightly most-remarked-upon aspect of the murder mystery side is how unsatisfyingly it’s resolved. Sea of Love is so scant of red herrings that it almost has to be Ellen Barkin, in that Jagged Edge/Basic Instinct suspicious protagonist “Is she/he-isn’t she/he, ah, what the hell I can’t help myself” vein. That it isn’t, and that it turns out to be Barkin’s loopy ex, played by none other than Henry out of Portrait of a Serial Killer (Michael Rooker; that movie ought to have been a clue, and would have been if anyone had seen it), announcing himself in double-take fashion, having been confined to a couple of early scenes as the cable guy who gives Pacino’s Frank Keller a bum lead, is disappointing to say the least.


It also means that, on revisiting the picture, it’s singularly evident how completely unreasonable Frank’s paranoid/loaded suspicions of Barkin’s Helen Cruger are (even the surname cues deadly antics). About the only time the movie properly puts her in a position that suggests serial murdering mood swings is when she shows up at Frank’s apartment with the Sea of Love 45.


But the upside of a revisit, without a fixing on how it turns out (although I’ve seen it a number of times before, not for about two decades), is that the quality of the performances really sinks in. Pacino’s is a tremendous portrayal of a functional alcoholic, one who spends his nights reeling uncontrollably, making rash choices and beset by crazed fears, but by day is a shrewdly competent police detective, and one given to sudden deductive leaps (admittedly, some of those also come while he’s on the sauce).


There’s a lot about Frank that isn’t terribly likeable; he’s self-involved, manipulative, and tries to turn his own errors into Helen’s. He’s a particular arsehole to Richard Jenkins, who is now married to Frank’s ex (an unseen Lorraine Bracco; her scenes were deleted). But Pacino carries his character and us along by dint of sheer charisma. It’s as if he had all that energy backed up, having been on four-year big screen hiatus from following the slaughter Revolution received critically and financially. We’re witness to the loose, freewheeling charm that comes naturally to the actor but was more frequently buried beneath an ultra-serious method approach.


He’s just great when paired with Goodman and indulging in buddy banter with fellow cops. In some respects, even more so than the intensity on display when he’s running through his drunk act or working himself into a state of extreme nervous tension over what Helen is doing with that gun in her handbag. Certainly, we also see the first signs of a tendency that would come to define his post-‘80s career: Shouty Pacino. Although, at least here it isn’t a lazy crutch, and his “Ho-ly cow!” Is both shouty and a comic highlight of the movie. Frank’s outburst about how,“Come the wet-arse hour, I'm EVERYBODY'S DADDY” is less laudable, however, so it’s swings and roundabouts. Perhaps the clincher, on the credit side, is his final scene with Barkin, where wee Al gets barged by a passer-by and just carries on acting. What a trooper!


Ellen Barkin oozes sultry, decked out with a salacious squint, crumpled smile, boxer’s nose and a similarly pugilistic attitude to sexual encounters. She’s every bit as perfect for this role as the unhinged Glenn Close and the impossibly-aspected Sharon Stone are in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct respectively, offering a grounding to the drama, whether she’s sporting a ridiculously movie-exotic red leather jacket or strolling panty-free for a liaison with Frank in a supermarket (Frank spends a lot of his time in supermarkets). She promotes just the right kind of smoky lustfulness. Barkin is possibly the least bland actress who ever rose to the ranks of leading ladies, which may be why she didn’t stick: too unconventional (she’s also great in The Big Easy, a couple of years earlier).


On the other side, Goodman is an absolute delight in the partner role (in a year where he also ruled in a partner role in Spielberg’s somnambulant Always), exuding effortlessly charm and confidence as he launches into a rendition of Sea of Love and throwing off casual quips that make Al look great (“What are you, a fucking cop?”: “Sometimes”); they have an easy, instant rapport. He’s also great, as if it needs saying, in the dramatic scenes, such as his one-night stand with lonely Lonely Heart Gina (Christine Estabrook).


Of which, Richard Price may have had a patchy time getting screenplays to theatres without being tarnished by hacks, but he creates some marvellous little scenes throughout that further underline how well observed this is character-wise. Harold Becker is in no way one of the great directors, but he services the material diligently. Gina’s initial encounter with Frank, garlanded with balloons (“They’re the only things keeping me up”) is matched by interviews with unhelpful potential victims (“I swear on the eyes of my children” one protests, lying that he hasn’t been playing away; in the next scene he is discovered dead).


The string of dates is both hilarious (“If you’re a printer, I’ve got a dick” assesses one of Al’s alleged profession; curiously the same profession as Jack Nance in Eraserhead – well, only curious because I watched them on consecutive nights) and heart-breaking (Patricia Barry’s older woman, who Frank makes his excuses to, and who he then sees observing him with later dates, is awful for her and awful for the heel it makes Frank feel). There are also memorable spots for William Hickey (as Al’s dad) and John Spencer (his lieutenant). Samuel L Jackson also gets one scene as “Black Guy”.


Thematically, of course, the picture comes at the tail-end of AIDS-panic ‘80s, and it’s worth considering how it distinguishes itself from glossier fare like Fatal Attraction and the later, knowingly-ludicrous Basic Instinct. It’s stating the obvious that this is a movie where sex with strangers can lead to death, and more particularly the death of men.


Allied with this, there’s a very evident homoerotic aspect; Terry Cruger makes a great play of having his victims undress and mimic sexual congress before killing them, suggesting repression and panic on his part. This is paired with the (often very funny; “Roses are red, violets are blue I’ve got one yay long and it’s all for you”) macho-hetero banter between fiercely straight cops; there’s an underling theme of sexual insecurity throughout, one that doesn’t only manifest in Al’s drunken fumblings and terror (it’s also interesting that Sea of Love comes at the opposite end of a decade where Al last played a cop, cruising gay bars in search of a serial killer).


Complementing the whole is a fine Trevor Jones score, a masterpiece of insistent, sleazy liaisons, rising tension and hot sax. It ought to be corny, but it absolutely works, and again I think that’s down to the greater whole being stapled to a cast who make it work. Slip Michael Douglas into this role, effective as he was as the go-to, sexually corrupt guy of that era, and the whole thing looks ridiculous.


It’s also worth noting that this saw the advent of the sub-sub-genre of the serial killer’s favourite song accompanying their homicidal sprees, something that would run nearly a decade and take in the likes of Striking Distance (Lil’ Red Riding Hood), The X-Files (Beyond the Sea) and Fallen (Time Is On My Side), the latter also featuring Goodman.


I well remember the release of Sea of Love, coming as it did a week before Black Rain, which at the time I was much more enthused over (Ridley Scott! Yes, I was young and foolish). Not really very similar, except in as much as both were cop thrillers starring 40-something stars released in September 1989. Sea garnered the critical applause, by and large, and also beat Rain at the box office. Well, in the US; worldwide, Black Rain made $134m to Sea of Love’s $111m. But that was a nice earner for Pacino’s comeback; he would continue to pick bankable (and qualitively very variable) fare for the next decade.


The aspirations to serious character drama are both to Sea of Love’s credit and disarray (the cop-out ending looks that much worse after such invested work, but even early on you’re left slightly askance; it took the old lady next door two days before she banged on her unlocked neighbour’s door and ask him to turn the record down?) They ensure it’s well above average, but the crudeness of the procedural aspect means it can never rise to the status of a classic.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

Yes, exactly so. I’m a humbug.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) (SPOILERS) There are undoubtedly some bullet-proof movies, such is their lauded reputation. The Wizard of Oz will remain a classic no matter how many people – and I’m sure they are legion – aren’t really all that fussed by it. I’m one of their number. I hadn’t given it my time in forty or more years – barring the odd clip – but with all the things I’ve heard suggested since, from MKUltra allusions to Pink Floyd timing The Dark Side of the Moon to it, to the Mandela Effect, I decided it was ripe for a reappraisal. Unfortunately, the experience proved less than revelatory in any way, shape or form. Although, it does suggest Sam Raimi might have been advised to add a few songs, a spot of camp and a scare or two, had he seriously wished to stand a chance of treading in venerated L Frank Baum cinematic territory with Oz the Great and Powerful.

So, crank open that hatch. Breathe some fresh air. Go. Live your life.

Love and Monsters (2020) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, Michael Matthews goes some way towards rehabilitating a title that seemed forever doomed to horrific associations with one of the worst Russell T Davies Doctor Who stories (and labelling it one of his worst is really saying something). Love and Monsters delivers that rarity, an upbeat apocalypse, so going against the prevailing trend of not only the movie genre but also real life.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.