After taking part in a sting netting fugitives by luring them into what they think is an event for the New York Yankees, Detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) celebrates twenty years on the NYPD by getting drunk and calling his ex-wife. He responds to a murder scene on the west side of Manhattan – a male shot in the back of the head in bed – with the detective (Richard Jenkins) who’s moved in with his ex. Keller notifies his lieutenant (John Spencer) that the victim must have known his killer because a sentimental tune he was playing for her on a record player: “Sea of Love.” A detective from Queens named Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) approaches Keller with a case eerily similar.
When the detectives learn that their victims placed a rhyming ad in a singles magazine, Keller proposes writing their own ad, arranging dates at a restaurant and taking prints off a wine glass until they get a match. One of the suspects, a headstrong blonde named Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) walks out on Frank before he can get her prints. “I believe in animal attraction, I believe in love at first sight. I believe in this [snaps fingers] and I don’t feel it with you.” While a lead puts the detectives on the trail of a male shooter, Frank bumps into Helen at a grocery store, where she has second thoughts about him. Touhey urges Frank to walk away, but the couple begins a torrid affair, even as evidence mounts to her as their killer.
In the mid-1980s, novelist Richard Price was working on his first original screenplay – Sea of Love – which Dustin Hoffman had attached himself to star in. Hoffman was so enamored with Price’s writing that he asked the Bronx native to doctor the script for Rain Man, a troubled project that three different directors would ultimately tackle and withdraw from. Six weeks of work with the exacting star led to Price quitting as well. Hoffman responded by dropping out of Sea of Love. The project was dead for a year, until Price hand delivered the script to Al Pacino, whose interest suddenly made it a hot property again.
Pacino showed Sea of Love to Martin Bregman, his former manager and the producer of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Scarface. Bregman set the project up at Universal, but the studio had concerns. Price recalls, “I spent nine months shoehorning that script into a thriller, which I never meant it to be. I wanted it to be this moody, mopey thing, a character study. The worst thing you can say in a meeting with the studios is, ‘This movie about I’m about to pitch to you fellas, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.’ They immediately say, ‘Well, in that case, get the fuck out of here.’ You sell a movie by its bloodlines, like you sell a racehorse. You tell them, ‘This is sired by Die Hard out of Do The Right Thing.’ Or, ‘It’s The Crying Game meets Jurassic Park, dinosaurs and transsexuals.’”
To direct, Bregman hired Gregory Hoblit, whose experience at that time was limited to episodes of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Disagreements with the producer over the script and over the crew he wanted to hire led to Hoblit being fired days before filming was to begin. Bregman turned to Harold Becker, whose credits included The Onion Field, Taps and The Boost. Becker recalled, “This Richard Price script, interestingly enough, had been around for many, many years. I had seen it in an earlier incarnation, it must have been about three, four years earlier and I think had probably been seen by a lot of people. It had made the rounds, so to speak. It’s hard to believe, such an interesting piece of material wouldn’t have been grabbed up right away, but that happens sometimes.”
With a budget of $16 million, Sea of Love commenced shooting May 1988. The production filmed in Toronto for eight weeks before moving to New York for another eleven weeks. Becker recalls, “This was a very difficult film to do. It was difficult because first of all, it was so intense. It also had so many different shades to it. Everything from the comedic to the darkest moments to murder. Also an intense erotic relation, it really covered the bases. So it was a big film and it also a very long shoot because we had a lot of night shooting – also always tough – shooting on the streets of New York during the summertime.” Ironically, Richard Price, Martin Bregman and Harold Becker all had grown up in the Bronx, as had the stars. Ellen Barkin even lived on the same block as Al Pacino when she was six.
Released September 1989, the picture was praised by critics, mostly. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “It has the manner of a heavily fiddled-with work, something that, after all the suggestions have been incorporated, finds itself in a corner from which it can’t plausibly be extricated.” David Denby retorted in New York Magazine, “Sea of Love is both an exciting murder mystery and a wonderful Manhattan love story – all lust and paranoia. It has a powerful erotic pull to it.” Siskel & Ebert gave it two thumbs up, with Siskel noting, “It’s Al Pacino’s best performance since The Godfather Part II.” Pacino had been absent from movie screens for four years, but Sea of Love brought him back in a big way, grossing $58.5 in the U.S. and another $52.3 million overseas.
To introduce Ellen Barkin’s character sooner, several scenes had been dropped, including a performance by Lorraine Bracco as Keller’s ex-wife. Despite the wholesale changes made to his script, Richard Price recalled, “What do they say? Comedy is Tragedy plus Time? Everybody’s telling me I’ve got to turn my movie into Fatal Attraction. Next thing I know, about a year later, I’m at a party and I run into James Dearden, the guy that wrote Fatal Attraction. And I said, ‘Oh. So you’re the prick that wrote that thing. I can’t tell you how miserable that made my life. I had to make my story like yours.’ And he said, ‘Look, I’ve just got a job directing a movie and everybody’s telling me I’ve got to make it like Sea of Love.’”
After a decade in which Hollywood seemed to crank out a sleazy thriller from the pen of Joe Eszterhas every year – each a bigger dose of stupid than the last – the class act of that cycle and the one that’s endured is Sea of Love. With very little violence and a near aversion to dwell on any business beneath the sheets, the film is a classic due to its well-drawn characters, as well as its vibe, which conjures a classic sense of nocturnal desperation and edginess. Instead of taking its whodunit all that seriously, the film is more interested in exploring the desires, connections and dangers that lurk beneath urban affairs.
Richard Price – who would script the remake of Shaft and episodes of The Wire – knows his way around cops, and cuts into prime rib like few writers with the NYPD operation that opens the movie, as well as the intricacies of the Miss Lonelyhearts sting. Pacino remains scruffy and immensely watchable, but where the film lights up is with the entrance of Ellen Barkin, who capped a decade of gutsy screen performances with working class verve. Harold Becker imbues the film with a robust kinkiness that never overwhelms the characters, but stays strongly rooted in their reality. Trevor Jones assists this with a stark, jazzy musical score.
Johnny Web at Movie House Commentary writes, “Sea of Love is not a major movie, but is a solid little thriller with deep character development. Pacino’s cop is more than just a cardboard cut-out. He’s flawed; he’s an ass; he’s lonely; he’s a drunk. The key point is that he’s somebody who is known to us. We can probably answer questions about elements of his life than have not been specifically covered on screen. That kind of character development allows the audience to think of him as a member of the family, maybe a cousin who’s a pretty decent guy but needs to slack off the booze. We get deeper into the thrills because we’re into him.”
Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button writes, “Sea of Love is a great film. Richard Price’s writing is beautiful. For the first three quarters of the film, until the mystery takes over for a half hour, the nuance is unbelievable. Characters saying things, the meanings involved, just beautiful. Sea of Love is, I think, the last film written by the novelist Richard Price, everything after was by screenwriter Richard Price, who was still good, but reserved the good stuff for his novels (Clockers, incidentally, came from the research he did for Sea of Love).”