1980's Flashback Cinema

1989 Flashback: Sea of Love

Helen: I always like to think I live for love. What else is there? Food?

Sea of Love (1989)

At some point during my ongoing #Watch1989 marathon, I polled Twitter for some suggestions. I received many wonderful ideas  — one, however, stood out due to the presentation. I wish I’d taken better notes so I could give specific credit to those who stepped forward and whispered Sea of Love, like it was a dirty, dirty, oh so dirty little secret.

I’d always been conscious of Sea of Love without knowing much about it. Al Pacino. Ellen Barkin. I could also describe the poster. Pacino pointing his gun forward like he’d been startled by the sudden arrival of a wayward James Bond gun barrel. As he turns to seize his moment, he realizes he’d mistaken the gun barrel for the space between necks of almost smooching silhouettes. Then his gun jams, and he just makes “pew pew” sounds to salvage the moment. This is where I show you exactly how all of this plays out on a two-dimensional poster. Zoom in on the look on his face. I nailed it.

It wasn’t the actual recommendation that teased me. It was the guilt behind the recommendation. I’d seen that guilt before in the eyes of moviewatchers with whom I’ve discussed the secret pleasures of Jade (1995). I queued up Sea of Love on Netflix DVD and awaited sexy times in my mailbox starring Al Pacino and perhaps the most captivating and least appreciated actress of the era, Ellen Barkin.

sea of love netflix dvd

How Sea of Love slipped through the cracks

Released the week before Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, the two prowled the same adult-thriller audience. Both succeeded moderately, but neither left a lasting impression.

I rented Black Rain as soon as it hit video. Black Rain popped up as a rainy day movie at baseball camp. Someone gave me a Black Rain DVD. Naturally, I picked up the Blu-ray. I wasn’t Black Rain obsessed, but it was as if Black Rain was obsessed with me. Michael Douglas and his dead-eyed gaze watching from behind the bushes in my backyard. Meanwhile, Sea of Love just seemed like a lukewarm trifle, a jilted lover, the movie that lost out to the more aggressive suitor.

Based on trailers for the film, Sea of Love just looked like every other barely scandalous Hollywood thriller. For comparison’s sake, let’s watch the trailers for both Black Rain and Sea of Love. You tell me which one you’d rather watch just based on the trailer.

Sea of Love:

Black Rain:

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Some of you probably picked Sea of Love. Congratulations on your ability to see through ham-fisted September studio marketing.  Neon veins coursing through a dark and gritty Tokyo in the Black Rain trailer made me a believer. It might sound like I’m suddenly anti-Black Rain. I enjoy the movie for what it is, but those slightly guilty suggestions that brought Sea of Love to my attention understood something about the film — even if they didn’t articulate it in words.

sea of love

The Appeal of Mainstream Sexy Times

Based on a screenplay by novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money), Sea of Love marks Al Pacino’s first film in four years after the disasterfest that was Revolution (1985). Despite solid scripting, plotting, and entertaining performances from Pacino and vampy Ellen Barkin, fans are often hesitant to admit their affection, like the film belongs to some kind of cultish and unsavory underbelly of mainstream cinema.

Becker’s serial-killer thriller knowingly plays with Film Noir conventions and conscripts them into a thoroughly modern genre film that also touches on existential loneliness and mid-life crises. John Goodman co-stars as Pacino’s investigative partner and provides some welcome comic relief. It might feel like a guilty pleasure, but Sea of Love joins a storied tradition of steamy 1980s R-rated potboilers born out of the subtext and embers of Film Noir.

There’s a major difference, however, between Sea of Love and something like Body Heat. Body Heat, for all its deliciously sweaty double-crossing (and Ted Danson) wears its Noir convention as proudly as Noel Coward wore ascots. Price’s script dares to transplant and update the formula to foreground modern anxieties and uniquely late-20th-century ennui.

Al Pacino’s Frank Keller appears on screen already in the middle of an existential midlife crisis. The killer finds his/her prey through the singles ads in the paper. While the technology of finding love through a print publication dates the film, the mechanics behind the narrative device easily translate to online dating. Looking for love while simultaneously hunting a killer provides a powerful playground for emotional fragility and cocksure swagger from both leads. Al Pacino’s not the only scene hungry thespian in this movie (and I’m not referencing Sam Jackson’s boisterous 20-second appearance).

The Ellen Barkin Factor

Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (and scores of other classic Noir), at once obsessed with cash money and Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, Frank’s blinded by his desire for connection, for this intervention into his ordinary New York life. Midway between greenhorn and retirement. Divorced. Lonely. Not only is his police detective fallible, but he’s often downright unlikable. He wallows, drinks, picks fights with Richard Jenkins, and makes late-night phone calls to his ex-wife seeking emotional affirmation.

In one of his last pre-Scent of a Woman roles, Pacino contains the eruptions that plague many of his later performances. He’s terrific, but like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Sea of Love hinges entirely on the guile of its female lead. The viewer must see what Frank sees in Ellen Barkin’s Helen — a potentially deadly femme fatale with the power to heal a mid-life crisis with a torrid affair. It’s not just that she’s sex in designer heels, she also has to be a grounded single mother and career woman. We have to expect her guilt and hope for her innocence.

ellen barkin sea of love

If you doubt the power of prime Ellen Barkin, pair Sea of Love with Mary Lambert’s unfairly maligned Siesta (1987) — only available on a region-free Italian release. While Kathleen Turner received higher profile roles in better movies, Ellen Barkin toiled on the fringe of superstardom. It’s unfortunate that many of Barkin’s films just didn’t deserve her.

Al Pacino gets the clammy, “Who Me?” spotlight on the poster, but Ellen Barkin sells this movie. Ellen Barkin is sex and fragility; she’s a dominatrix living with her mother and doing her best to exist in a cinematic world that doesn’t know how to put a label on her.

Sea of Love Verdict

Harold Becker made a few standout films in his career (Malice and The Black Marble, for example), so the “discovery” that Sea of Love proved to be a competent and knowing manipulation of the genre shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.

The way Price’s script inserts elements of the romantic comedy into a drama about an apparent serial killer makes for a movie that constantly puts he viewer on uneasy territory… until it lets everyone off the hook in the final moments. I’ve read nothing about the production, but I’ve seen enough of these “movie things” to recognize the telltale signs of studio intervention. Between an atonal final scene to an easy-bake ending, Sea of Love does all the heavy lifting but lacks the conviction to follow through on the promise of something more daring, something that would have catapulted the film into genre royalty.

Don’t let any of that dissuade you. Despite last-minute whodunnit stumbles, the Sea of Love serves up a delicious dish. It’s sexy, but not scandalous. Tense with a side of nail-biting and naturally funny when it needs to break tension. I just wish it had dared to be great instead of aiming for a higher test-screening CinemaScore.

As one of the biggest surprises of my #Watch1989 series, I’ll point you in the direction of the other surprising pleasure for a wild double feature. It’s not a perfect pairing, but I wouldn’t mind indulging in fun the double of Sea of Love and Gleaming the Cube. Give it a chance. You’ll come around.

Sea of Love is available on a budget double-feature with Scent of a Woman and in single-disc edition.

SEA OF LOVE, from left: Ellen Barkin, Al Pacino, 1989, © Universal

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.