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This movie won an Oscar for Best Actor (Al Pacino).

‘Scent of a Woman’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1992

Sometimes a movie gives you the impression something significant is happening, or is about to. "Scent of a Woman" keeps you on this curiosity track for some time. You're led from one tantalizing piece of information to the next. Ultimately, there's nothing there, but the uncovering of the mystery is intriguing enough.

That intriguing quality has a lot to do with Al Pacino. The source of the mystery, he's a retired lieutenant colonel who is cantankerous, unfathomable and blind. The person who has to do the fathoming is Chris O'Donnell, a high school student who answers an ad to babysit Pacino over Thanksgiving.

When Pacino's nervous daughter, Sally Murphy, leads O'Donnell to his first encounter with Pacino, the high schooler realizes who he's up against. The merciless curmudgeon barks at O'Donnell for everything from watching too much MTV to addressing Pacino as "Mister."

"It's an easy 300 bucks," says Murphy, begging the reluctant O'Donnell to take the assignment.

"I don't get an easy feeling," says O'Donnell.

"By Sunday night, you'll be best friends," she says, less than convincingly.

As soon as his daughter and family leave for the weekend, Pacino assumes full command of O'Donnell's life. The bewildered student finds himself part of Pacino's outrageous plans for the weekend, which the older man only reveals in increments -- usually just before it's about to happen. Suddenly, anxious O'Donnell finds himself flying to New York City in a first-class seat.

After that, they take a limousine to the Waldorf-Astoria, where Pacino has booked them a room. After that, he has plans for drinks, dinner and maybe a beautiful escort -- in short, the best weekend of his life . . . .

O'Donnell gets an earful of Life 101 from embittered, cynical Pacino. Putty at first in Pacino's manipulative hands, the student slowly builds some character resilience. The new confidence also helps him with the problem he faces at school: Headmaster James Rebhorn has threatened to dismiss O'Donnell if he doesn't reveal the identities of the students who wrecked the principal's prized car with paint. Rebhorn has also sweetened the deal by promising to recommend cash-strapped O'Donnell for financial aid at Harvard.

Pacino is going to have a few things to say about that.

"Scent" resembles movies such as "The Last Detail" and "My Favorite Year," in which a swaggery, larger-than-life personality shows a greenhorn how to really live. It's an in-built fun situation. Pacino takes this over-the-top role and runs with it. As for O'Donnell (who was Mary-Louise Parker's beau in "Fried Green Tomatoes"), he makes a reasonably engaging existential virgin.

In the end, however, when all Pacino's demons are bared, they don't add up to the poignant punchline you were set up for. The movie seems to have two or three finales too many -- a disturbing trend in all too many films of late. And when Pacino makes a soapbox stand at O'Donnell's disciplinary hearing, his hard-edged wisdom is overwritten, smug triteness from screenwriter Bo Goldman. That's when you realize "Scent" has already lost its smell for quite some time.

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