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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

The sooner we are seamen again, the better.

The Bounty (1984)
(SPOILERS) How different might David Lean’s late career have been if Ryan’s Daughter hadn’t been so eviscerated, and his confidence with it? Certainly, we know about his post-A Passage to India projects (Empire of the Sun, Nostromo), but there were fourteen intervening years during which he surely might have squeezed out two or three additional features. The notable one that got away was, like Empire of the Sun, actually made: The Bounty. But by Roger Donaldson, after Lean eventually dropped out. And the resulting picture is, as you might expect, merely okay, notable for a fine Anthony Hopkins performance as Bligh (Lean’s choice), but lacking any of the visual poetry that comes from a master of the craft.