Scent of a Woman is a great film with a bad rep among Oscar pundits because it was the movie for which Al Pacino won the Oscar undeservedly. I personally think that Pacino deserved the Oscar and I don't care if I'm the only one in the world who thinks that. At the same time, I didn't think as highly of the movie as a whole, until when I rewatched it recently. Before rewatching it on TV last night, I had watched it once before about a decade ago. It's a typical "young man meets older man and he guides him through a coming of age" trial that's in the tradition of Dead Poet's Society, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Good Will Hunting*. It stars Al Pacino as Colonel Slade, the old man who in this version has a pretty nasty exterior to get past, and Chris O'Donnell as the poor prep school student who must look after Pacino's character for a weekend so he can raise enough money to go home for Thanksgiving break. started out having three main problems with this movie.
First of all, Charlie (O'Donnell's character) is pretty asexual. Now, I think you're aloud to be asexual, and I don't think every protagonist in a movie has to be involved with a girl or something, but contrasted with so much talk about sex from the Colonel's character and the fact that Charlie who's in late adolescence when his hormones should be in full bloom, I found it rather curious. I wish he got to at least have danced with that pretty girl, rather than guided Al Pacino to dance with her in the tango scene. Nevertheless, it's still refreshing in the wake of some of the more oversexualized movies of the late 90s like American Pie and Cruel Intentions. My second problem lies in Al Pacino's character arc was from his impossible to get along with stage to his genuine self. I know it's necessary to create a certain progression for him, so he could've been so much more effective in his stubbornly likable personality, but still it was overdone and stretched out. My biggest beef, however, is that the boys who Charlie refuses to squeal on, have absolutely no likable traits whatsoever. They're ugly, uncharismatic, they rub it in how they're richer than him, and they're cowards. The pressure that one guy, George, exerts on him is cruel. It is true that the other headmaster is a jerk too, for picking on him, but I wasn't necessarily sure which was the lesser of two evils.
However, these three things were what lingered in my memory about the movie from the last time I saw it 10 years ago, but by the movie's end, I was left exuberant and moved, because those problems are more than cancelled out by what the film has going for it, which is the immeasurable chemistry between Pacino and O'Donnell's characters in this film. O'Donnell plays his part with a wide-eyed innocence and a guarded sense of caution that has the added effect of keeping the movie from being too corny, and Pacino is mesmerizing. The two create magic with every conversation they have. Also, the movie plays out like a series of short episodes and some of them like the car driving scene and the tango lesson are a lot of fun. What I also came to appreciate is that the film is a little harder to grasp because it doesn't follow conventional methods of storytelling. True, it would be easier for Charlie's peers to be worth standing up to, but the story never took the easy route.
The lesson learned? Star chemistry makes all the difference.
*Technically speaking, Good Will Hunting came after Scent of a Woman but you get my point