Largely forgotten, but remembered chiefly as “Al Pacino’s racecar movie,” Bobby Deerfield is not so much a failed vanity project as it is a groping, often sensitive and rather death-obsessed character study based on Erich Maria Remarque’s fatalistically titled novel Heaven Has No Favorites. We barely ever see Pacino’s Bobby in his racecar, and there is not much actual racing footage. Instead, we are treated to a patient, often exasperating two-hander between garrulous, impulsive Lillian (Marthe Keller) and the enclosed, cautious Bobby. There’s strikingly little plot, and we learn quite early that Lillian is dying, so the only drama is in these two people and their desultory interaction with each other against various European locales, which leads to an extremely bizarre scene where Bobby imitates Mae West, opens up about his family, and learns to tell lies about himself, which is seen as some kind of psychological breakthrough by the spiky Lillian.
As Bobby Deerfield goes on, we might begin to feel that we’re wasting our time on these two, and director Sydney Pollack isn’t particularly comfortable with the screenplay’s attempts at existential dread. This is a romance where the first bedroom scene ends before it begins, with Lillian passed out and Bobby startled as he reaches out to caress her head and comes away with a hunk of her hair in his hand. Such morbidity is offset by the definite chemistry between the leads (they were also a couple off-screen), and Keller is so charismatic that she holds all but the most aimless scenes together; she winds up being very touching as Lillian loses her bravado and starts to look scared of dying. Pacino is at his best: precise, internal, magnetically cute, and expert at capturing the fear in this man’s turtle-like existence and his longing for change. “I didn’t come here to shout,” he says at one point, and this movie reminds us how good he could be before all the hoo-ahs took over.