Star Implosion

There's only one Al Pacino, though. Like Robert DeNiro, the man came into films in the early Seventies as a Method-trained wunderkind -- his nasal whine and penchant for playing tortured youths put him in the Montgomery Clift-James Dean school of martyred studs. And again, like DeNiro, it took him until recently to become a true star.

His performance as Frank Slade, the blind, hard-drinking ex-army colonel in Scent of a Woman, is of a piece with his star turns in Godfather III, Sea of Love, and Glengarry Glen Ross. Gone is the measured, internal young man of Serpico; in his place is Pacino the gravel-voiced gesticulator, the great tanned ham. He turns scenery chewing into an art form. As Slade -- a ludicrously operatic, actorish creation with the mind of a Teamster and the mouth of a poet -- he keeps jerking your sympathies around, making you love this eloquent, narcissistic creature and then loathe him, sometimes in the same scene.

The story, about Slade's weekend in Manhattan with a teenage escort (Chris O'Donnell) whom he despises, then gradually learns to like and then nurtures, is a feel-good washout; by the finale of director Martin Brest's two-and-a-half-hour dramedy, in which Slade rescues his young charge from a prissy prep school, you'll be more puzzled than exhilarated. (It's like hiring Arnold Schwarzenegger to loosen the top on a catsup bottle.)

But like MacLaine, Pacino pours on the charisma and ennobles even the hoariest of cliches; he wraps Todd Graff's simplistic screenplay around himself like a cape and runs off shouting to the balconies. It's a bravura, even shattering performance -- not because Pacino makes you believe in Slade, but because he makes you believe in Pacino believing in the part of Slade. You admire Pacino's performance the way you admire Michael Jordan's ballplaying or Eric Clapton's guitar work -- as the stunning product of a man so in love with what he does that he forgets himself completely. Like Dustin Hoffman at his best, Pacino is a fiery black hole of an actor -- he sucks in the mediocrity around him until there's nothing left but greatness.

Directed by Beeban Kidron; with Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Marcia Gay Harden, and Marcello Mastroianni;

Rated R.

Directed by Martin Brest; with Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell;

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