You might assume that over the course of his forty-some year acting career, Al Pacino has probably won enough Oscars to stock a whole trophy room, but actually he’s only won once. It was for his performance as a blind, pissed-off, ex-military man with plans to kill himself after indulging in a weekend of fine food and fine escorts in Scent of a Woman. The movie was kind of a big deal back in the early 90s, getting nominated for a bunch of awards and winning everybody’s grandma and grandpa’s hearts in the theaters. Plus, Pacino had a catchphrase in the movie – “hoo-ah!” – which got referenced and quoted (to an annoying degree) for years after.
In 2009, Ramin Bahrani made a movie about a similarly pissed off old white guy who has made a conscious decision and an appointment to kill himself called Goodbye Solo. It didn’t have any name actors like an Al Pacino, and it didn’t manage to win any awards that you’ve ever heard of, but it was really good anyway. So much so that I think it’s a shame that it never got any play with anyone outside of the movie snob crowd.
What do they have in common?
Well, the most obvious connection is that both of these movies deal quite a bit with suicide. Both of the main characters are proud men who have lived a life of isolation and have gotten to the point where they’re incapable of making connections with other people. Walls are up, defenses are on high alert, and despair has reached its boiling point. But there are also some similarities among the secondary characters. In Scent of a Woman, Pacino’s character is toting around a young prep school kid (Chris O’Donnell) who’s on scholarship and is babysitting a blind man as an odd job. In Goodbye Solo the suicidal character (Red West) falls into a tenuous relationship with a Senegalese cab driver (Souleymane Sy Savane) who becomes an unlikely roommate. There are class issues going on with both characters. They’re both struggling to make it in worlds where the odds are stacked against them and they have to hustle twice as fast as everyone else to make their place, and they’re both oddly supplicating when relating to the other protagonists.
Why is Scent of a Woman overrated?
While Scent of a Woman is a movie that has its charms, it’s also a movie that hits you over the head with a brick. The prep school is full of sniveling, two-faced villains, and seemingly for no reason. There’s a subplot where Chris O’Donnell’s character witnesses some other students pulling a prank on the school’s headmaster that leads to a public trial and a moral quandary that O’Donnell wrestles with. He has to decide if he snitches and gets favors from the headmaster or if he keeps his mouth shut and gets expelled from school. The kids who pull the prank are cocky little shits to the ninth degree, the headmaster is an unbelievably conniving jerk, and they all just look like comic book villains. Not only isn’t their one-dimensional villainy necessary to the story, it’s actually harmful. O’Donnell’s conundrum would have been far more complex and affecting if they were three dimensional characters who were all just involved in an awkward situation.
The movie couldn’t possibly have made more of a melodramatic display of the Pacino character’s impending suicide. Every moment that he and O’Donnell share together is so visibly crafted to lead to uplifting and insightful catharsis that the film self-sabotages. And Thomas Newman’s pandering, manipulative score just underlines the efforts. Insight and inspiration should be the pleasant side effect of effective storytelling, when you make it the goal you start to look phony and you make it hard for the audience to put their trust in you. As soon as I feel a calculated effort to tug on my heart strings I tune out of what I’m watching. As a filmmaker you have to woo me, lull me into a place of complacency, and then strike with your hard hitting sales pitch. Scent of a Woman doesn’t have the subtlety of approach to fully achieve its lofty goals.
And nowhere is the blunt nature of this movie more apparent than in Pacino’s performance. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very engaging, and largely he’s the reason to watch this thing; but this movie is where Pacino went over to the dark side. This is the performance where he realized he could stop acting, start yelling, and coast on persona alone. Even though he’s fun to watch, he overpowers everyone else on the screen, he chews up every scene and spits it out, and he leaves his co-stars with nothing. And, yeah, I get it, Chris O’Donnell doesn’t really have much to give as far as verbal sparring goes, but that’s another problem with the movie. O’Donnell is a blank page through 90% of this. He’s such a timid, vanilla dope that he’s hard to relate to. He spends the whole movie whining about teenage social issues and then when real life and death stuff starts happening in front of him, he sells it like it’s no more grave than spilled milk. This movie needed a kid who could charm in his naiveté and could add some gravity to the suicide stuff. O’Donnell wasn’t it.
Why is Goodbye Solo underpraised?
The biggest reason to watch this movie is that the characters are so rich, real, and relatable. Unlike Scent of a Woman where it’s the Al Pacino Show and everyone else just has to stare wide-eyed as he speaks in quips, this movie makes sure that the grumpy old man and his unlikely friend are both interesting. Watching a back and forth between two people on equal footing is so much more layered an experience than watching one guy show off. The acting here is on another level as well. Savane’s character is a real fast-talking huckster type, always hustling for that extra dollar, and generally that’s the sort of character that I can’t stand, but Savane is so charismatic and open that you can’t help but fall in love with him over the course of the film. And Red West is basically the anti-Pacino here. He gives nothing, he’s silent for huge stretches of the film, but every second that he’s on screen he has you captivated and wondering what’s happening inside of his head. This is a clinic in minimalist acting. West just lives in his character’s skin and at no point does it feel like you’re watching a performance.
The storytelling here is on a whole other level too. This movie hits the emotional heights of Scent of a Woman without exerting 1/10th of the effort. It doesn’t tell you as much about its characters, it doesn’t beg you nearly as desperately to buy into what its selling, and yet I found it to be at least as captivating. The last ten minutes of this movie, when you finally come face to face with the inevitable suicide that builds throughout the film…it’s some of the most gripping cinema I’ve ever seen. Comparatively, the suicide scene in Scent of a Woman is well-acted, but it feels so much less authentic and so much more like an Oscar clip. There’s something to be said for brevity and economy of effort when it comes to your storytelling as well. Goodbye Solo gets the job done in an hour and a half, whereas Scent of a Woman lasts well over two hours and doesn’t manage to develop anything requiring the extra investment of your time.
Evening the odds.
Scent of a Woman paints in broad strokes and is aiming itself at a wide audience. I have some quibbles with the movie, but I think that generally it accomplishes what it means to well, and I’m not saying that Goodbye Solo should be seen and loved by as many people. Goodbye Solo is a challenging art film that makes its bones with subtlety and nuance. It’s really only going to appeal to a small portion of the moviegoing audience. But those that it does appeal to, it’s going to absolutely knock out. It’s the difference between a shotgun and a sniper rifle. Scent of a Woman is a shotgun spraying buckshot into a crowd. It’s going to effect a lot of people, but generally everyone is going to walk away from it and move on afterward. Goodbye Solo is only going to hit one person in the crowd, but it’s going to knock them dead. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to everyone, but I hope that as many people who might be susceptible to its charms as possible eventually get a chance to see what it has to offer.
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