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‘Sea of Love’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 15, 1989

In Harold Becker's provocative, minor-key thriller "Sea of Love," Al Pacino carries his weight low, like a man whose problems have accumulated in saddlebags around his hips. Pacino plays Keller, a New York detective just celebrating his 20th year on the force, and his walk is an old cop's walk, slouched and battle-weary.

It's easy to have mixed feelings about "Sea of Love," to be frustrated and, at the same time, half in love with it. Pacino's performance, though, is a marvel; your feelings about it are clean and unqualified. Simply put, he's great in the role. As written, the character is a cliche -- he's the cop with nothing in his life but law enforcement, the cop who's broken with his family and lives alone, mostly drunk and mostly bitter. But as Pacino plays him, it's the character's cagey intelligence and tenacity that register and not the cliches.

In the role, Pacino's emotions are low-slung too. They come from deep underneath, like explosions in a mine shaft. Keller is a man in the early stages of recovery, and what he's recovering from, mainly, is middle age. Pacino's Keller isn't a burnout; when he's on the job his eyes are alert, and you can see him making connections in his head. Even on good days, though, Keller's street-smartness has to work its way through layers of bleariness, and watching him push through the booze-soaked cotton in his head to reach his thoughts is a drama in itself. He gets there, though, and that's the point -- both the getting there and the work that it takes.

On the surface, "Sea of Love" is a bluesy thriller with a clever though not overly complicated premise. Three stiffs are found, shot in the back of the head, and the only clue linking them is that they all placed rhyming messages in an area magazine's personals column. To track down the killer, Keller and his partner, Sherman (John Goodman), publish a poem of their own and, setting up a stakeout at a restaurant, begin scheduling "dates" with the women who answer it.

Helen (Ellen Barkin), one of the suspects, becomes Keller's lover, and we feel a sickening thrill at his recklessness when he takes her to bed. There's a knowingness in this, of big-city life and grown-up, big-city sex, that seems to come more from screenwriter Richard Price ("The Color of Money") than from Becker. Where Becker's work doesn't actually get in the way of what's good in Price's material, it is merely proficient. But despite the clumsiness of their plotting and the crudely teasing manipulations, the filmmakers still manage to deliver some jolting, uneasy-making excitement.

Judged on this level, though, the picture wouldn't amount to anything more than a sexy but otherwise routine murder mystery about a cop who falls in love with his suspect. What distinguishes "Sea of Love" is not the film's surface story but its turbulent and ineffably melancholy subtext.

There are levels even to this. Thematically, the film is like "Fatal Attraction" turned on its head. (It's actually a lot more fun than "Fatal Attraction.") It's not about the destructiveness of a casual indiscretion; it's about knowingly slipping into bed with a woman who is almost certainly a killer.

Whether she is or not hardly matters -- except, of course, in terms of plot -- because on a still deeper level, the movie is about the dangers of opening up and the threat of emotional murder that exists whenever intimate secrets are shared. What the movie gets at, through its thriller plot, is all that emotional nakedness -- all the desperation -- you feel browsing through the personals ads. It's about a hunger to connect, sexually, emotionally, in ways that are healthy and ways that aren't.

This is fairly remarkable stuff for a thriller to address, and if "Sea of Love" were able to get it all, it would be a great movie. As it is, it's stirring and messy and hints at more than it is capable of delivering.

When Keller and his partners set up to do their interviews, the responses come pouring in. The parade is a humiliating one; these women are defeated even before they sit down. All except for Helen. As a type, Helen isn't quite all of a piece. She's tough, but it isn't clear whether she's playing tough or is tough deep down, and that slight trace of uncertainty about her is what the filmmakers keep teasing us with.

Dressed in her red leather jacket, tank top and tight jeans, Barkin flirts with the edge of Jordache sluttiness. Initially, she's voraciously sexy, and after she stomps away from her first meeting with Keller -- without leaving her prints on her wine glass -- it's as if he's been blowtorched.

This may be one of the strangest relationship movies ever made. And one of the wooziest. The remainder of the film traces the zigzag course of their relationship, from Keller's chance encounter with her on the street and their bout of torrid, horrified lovemaking, through their back-and-forth feelings of vulnerability and suspicion. The timbers in Price's script don't exactly meet at the corners. But practically everything -- including the use of Phil Phillips's 1959 hit "Sea of Love" -- feeds into the movie's subtext of romantic longing.

All the actors fire off one another nicely. Goodman and Pacino may be the only cop duo in memory to generate anything like real enthusiasm. (Goodman has gargantuan talents, and this is one of his fullest, most robust performances.)

But the main energy in the picture comes from what takes place between the lovers. Each character sees the chance for a rebirth in the other, and in each there's a sense of struggling against an undertow of screw-ups and blown chances. What happens between them in "Sea of Love" takes to its terrifying extreme that queasiness at the heart of almost every new relationship when, regardless of the intimacy you feel, the other person remains a stranger. Actors rarely get the chance to plant themselves in ground this rich, and these are great actors. Their blossoming is prodigious.

"Sea of Love" is rated R and contains nudity, violence and adult situations.

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