Saturday, November 24, 2012

This is no Thanksgiving turkey

I trust everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Like all other holidays, we each celebrate the occasion in different ways. There is of course, the requisite family (and friends) gathering with the big turkey dinner. Some drinking (or no drinking). Some football.

My personal Thanksgiving tradition is to watch Scent of a Woman, starring Al Pacino. It's my go-to turkey day movie because the story takes place over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. I never saw the film in theatrical release since at the time I had soured on Pacino. But I heard so many positive reviews about the movie (Pacino won the Oscar for Best Actor) that I had to rent the VHS tape and then buy the DVD.

In essence, the movie is a buddy-flick. Two guys go on a road trip. There's drinking, a fight, some wenching (off-screen), and weapons-grade bromance bonding. 

To recap the plot (Spoiler Alert): Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell) is a student on merit scholarship at an exclusive prep school. While his rich classmates are going to Vermont ski resorts for the Thanksgiving break, Simms takes a weekend job to earn Christmas plane fare. His assignment is to watch Frank Slade, a blind retired Army lieutenant colonel. When we first meet Slade, he's a foul-mouthed, mercurial curmudgeon. But we get enough slivers of tragic backstory to cut him slack. Such as, why is he blind and so bitter?

Simms accompanies Slade to New York City on what is supposed to be a one-way junket for the colonel to indulge his bucket-list: "...stay in a first-class hotel, drink a nice glass of wine, eat an agreeable meal, see my big brother, make love to a terrific woman..." but when Slade admits, "I'm going to lay in my big, beautiful bed at the Waldorf and blow my brains out..." the story takes a sinister turn.

As writers, we harp on the need to create compelling characters, and few are as engaging and layered as Slade. What intrigued me was how much the script got right about him as a career officer with his pitch-perfect US Army argot. For example he pronounced "dead' as "de-add," exactly the way I remembered it from my time in uniform. He used a lot of big words like "palaver" to show himself as a scholar-soldier. At times the movie's authenticity strained believability as when he said, "...deputy debriefer, Paris peace talks, '68, snagged a Silver Star and silver bar." What doesn't jibe is how could he earn a medal for combat valor while serving in Paris? Plus, it's doubtful that a second lieutenant would have a job anywhere close to the Paris peace talks. And it's confirmed that Slade is a bullshit artist supreme when he introduces Simms at the family Thanksgiving dinner as the prep-school's star quarterback even though Simms never said such things. But Slade's medals and decorations show him as a distinguished veteran of the Vietnam war so there is an undercurrent of veracity to his tall tales.

One flaw in the story was Slade's inherent misogyny. He refers to women simply as "pussy" which he appreciates above all things. A very distant second is a Ferrari (a car, more objectifying!).  His making love to a terrific woman is to buy the services of a hooker. Despite his lechery, what Slade regrets is that he's yet to wake up with the women he went to bed with.

Al Pacino chews the scenery when he defends Simms at a disciplinary hearing at school. Another flaw is that the parents of the other accused students let Slade run roughshod over them. And to reward Slade's redemption, near the end of the movie a woman on the faculty approaches Slade to learn about his exploits on Lyndon Johnson's staff and we get the hint of a budding romance.

Despite the contrived plot resolutions, the story remains truly engrossing and a fine example of great storytelling. Hoo-rah!

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Al Pacino became one of my favorite actors because of this movie. It was terrific!