Al Pacino is back in a familiar role after a lengthy hiatus and a string of flops the burned-out cop-on-the-edge. And for much of the way his alternately low-key and kinetic performance and his chemistry with both Ellen Barkin and John Goodman keep "Sea of Love" afloat.
But in the end the picture is done in by its familiarity anyone who has seen any cop movies or cop TV shows has seen most of "Sea of Love" too many times before.
The story has Pacino finishing 20 years on the New York police force and finding retirement in the back of his mind. He's an alcoholic, his ex-wife has married another cop in his Manhattan precinct and he's seen so much crime and filth that he's neither outraged nor cynical anymore. He's just sad.
Then an apparent serial killer gives him a mystery to solve and he finds himself teamed up with Queens detective Goodman, in whose district the killer has also found a victim.
It appears to be a woman doing the murders. Her targets are men who place rhyming solicitations in the personals of a New York singles magazine. So Pacino and Goodman decide to create their own rhyming ad, meet the women who answer and check the fingerprints they leave with the killer's, which have been picked up at the scenes of the crimes.
As Pacino meets the women who respond one by one in a restaurant, the film's most touching moment occurs: An attractive, but older woman pours her heart out to Pacino, only to be rebuffed since she is obviously not the killer. Then she sits at the bar and watches as Pacino interviews his other "dates." She eventually slips quietly off her barstool and walks out of the restaurant with tears in her eyes. It's a truthful, very affecting moment, and unfortunately ends an untold story that seems as if it would be much more interesting than the one we're left with.
Finally, Pacino meets Ellen Barkin, a respondent who at first says she feels no attraction to him and who departs without leaving fingerprints. But later, when they meet again, they begin a torrid affair and Pacino doesn't want to take her fingerprints. If she's the killer, he doesn't want to know. And yet it haunts him throughout their relationship.
Up to this point the film is taut, tense and often humorous, but then it turns into a standard mystery-thriller formula picture, with Pacino being stalked by the killer but not knowing whether or not it's Barkin who's doing the stalking.
The resolution is fairly interesting, though routine police procedure should have solved it long before it happens. And the final scenes are an embarrassing attempt to come up with a Hollywood "happy ending." ("Fatal Attraction," what hast thou wrought?)
Despite some major missteps, there are some scintillating moments along the way. And it is nice to see Pacino returning to form, as well as to enjoy the meaty roles given both Barkin and Goodman (who also plays husband to TV's "Roseanne" weekly). They are two of the movies' best, most consistently interesting screen presences.
Be advised, however, that "Sea of Love" also wallows in R-rated excesses an abundance of violence, sex, nudity and profanity, most of it over the top.