Judge Brendan Babish is so shy that when he swims in the Sea of Love he wears a t-shirt.
Deception is dangerous. Desire is deadly.
Notwithstanding his iconic performance in Scarface, Al Pacino's career suffered a precipitous slump in the 1980s. Following critical and box office disappointments Author! Author! and Cruising, the disastrous 1985 movie Revolution sent him to the stage and a four-year hiatus from film work. In 1989, he returned to the silver screen in the erotic thriller Sea of Love, a box-office hit that not only revived his career but allowed him to rub his truncated body against a naked Ellen Barkin. Not too shabby.
Facts of the Case
Manhattan-based Detective Frank Keller (Pacino) is investigating a strange murder: while simulating a sex act, a naked man is shot in his own bedroom. Through a chance encounter with a Queens detective named Sherman (John Goodman, Roseanne), Keller learns that another man was killed in a similar fashion across town. The two cops team up and quickly learn that both victims had recently placed rhyming personal ads in the local newspaper. After a third man who also placed a rhyming personal ad ends up killed in a similar fashion, Keller and Sherman decide to place an ad of their own.
Keller goes on dates with the cavalcade of women who answer his ad, though none of their fingerprints match those of the killer's. But one woman, Helen Cruger (Barkin, Ocean's 13), snubs Keller before he can get her fingerprints on a wine glass. However, after a chance meeting at a bodega, Cruger reconsiders Keller, and the two begin a torrid love affair. Keller can't be certain that Cruger isn't a serial killer, but this doesn't prevent him from falling hard for her.
At first glance, Sea of Love could easily be mistaken for an earlier, New York-based incarnation of Basic Instinct. In addition to uncannily similar plots, both films feature aging actors romping around with leggy blondes a few decades younger than themselves. However, where Basic Instinct is defined by its sweaty, sexually indulgent style, Sea of Love is a surprisingly funny and engaging thriller, with far more substance than its Bay Area counterpart.
I probably wouldn't have been so surprised by Sea of Love if I had known it was written by Richard Price. While hardly a household name, Price has a put together a solid career as a novelist and screenwriter. While his most famous work is the excellent novel Clockers (which he and Spike Lee adapted into an almost equally great film), he also scripted the quirky underrated dramas Mad Dog and Glory and Kiss of Death. His work is often suspenseful, hardboiled, and humorous; he is a slightly less heralded, New York version of David Mamet.
It's the humor in particular that is most surprising and refreshing about Sea of Love. The film's first hour is at times tense and dramatic, but Pacino's irreverent one-liners and Goodman's garrulous sidekick keep things light. And this culminates in the film's most memorable scene: the night Keller goes on a quick succession of blind dates in search of the killer. With the possible exception of his performance as Big Boy Caprice, Pacino has never been this funny before.
The humor and tension are both augmented by the fact that Keller isn't a very good detective. He's not incompetent, but he's a far cry from the effortlessly perceptive sort of investigator played by a Humphrey Bogart or Steve McQueen. Keller's a diminutive, slightly disheveled, agitated police officer; he makes incorrect assumptions and ignores obvious leads. In films with detective protagonists, the audience usually lags behind the main character's intuition; in Sea of Love, Keller never knows more than we do, which is refreshing—and a little scary.
However, one problem with a thriller like this—with only one identified suspect—is that no matter how enjoyable the set-up is you've got to follow through with a great twist at the end. We know Keller is playing with fire by sleeping with Barkin; there are clues both indicating she's the killer and that she's just a lonely single mom. But she can never simply be one or the other. And so, in an attempt to surprise the audience, the film takes a dramatic turn that not only strains credulity, but also isn't that interesting. I sympathize with Price and the filmmakers: it's difficult to surprise modern audiences who are so well trained to spot the twist, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing. In fact, the rest of the film was so good, the fact that it ended so poorly makes it all the more unfortunate.
Sea of Love is available for the first time in high definition on this HD DVD release. The film was never remastered for DVD, so my guess is the picture here is superior to its earlier incarnation, but it's still not very impressive. The movie is supposed to have a somewhat dull look, with weary detectives moving amongst old New York scenery, but that doesn't explain the drab color contrasts and shadows that don't get any heavier than dark gray. So far I've been very impressed with the quality of the transfers I've seen on HD DVDs, but this would make for only a slightly better than average standard DVD release.
The sound is not very impressive either. Though the disc has a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround mix, most of the action is pumped through the center channel. Like the picture quality, there was little discernable difference between this and a regular DVD release.
The extras on the disc—commentary by director Harold Becker, seven minutes of deleted scenes, and a short making-of featurette—are all available on the standard DVD release. I am big fan of commentary tracks, but Becker, though genial, didn't provide nearly as much insight as I would like.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In Sea of Love Ellen Barkin works in a shoe store and has trouble finding a man. That's a stretch…but okay. She then begins dating Pacino, who isn't a bad-looking guy, but doesn't look his best in Sea of Love. Frank Keller wears cheap wrinkled suits and has poor grooming habits. Contrast this with Helen Cruger, who looks like a supermodel when she dresses up for a night on the town. I know in Hollywood fantasyland male protagonists have a shot with anyone, but some of the scenes of Barkin walking arm in arm with Pacino seem ridiculous.
For its first two acts, Sea of Love is an engaging, superior thriller. Unfortunately, its conventional and uninspiring third act leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
As the great Meat Loaf once sang, "Two out of three ain't bad." Sea of Love is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Harold Becker
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