New York City homicide detective Frank Keller is a burned-out alcoholic. His wife left him and married one of his colleagues, and he is depressed about reaching his 20th year on the police force. He is assigned to investigate the murder of a man in Manhattan, shot dead while face down in his bed, naked, listening to an old 45rpm recording of "Sea of Love." Keller has three clues — a lipstick-smeared cigarette, a want-ad that the dead man placed in a newspaper, and fingerprints of the perpetrator.
A second man dies in the same manner in Queens. Detective Sherman Touhey from the local precinct suggests that he and Frank collaborate. Both victims had placed rhyming ads in the lonely hearts column of the newspaper, seeking dates. The detectives track down Raymond Brown, the only other man with a rhyming ad. He's a married man who admits placing the ad but swears that he threw away all the letters and never saw anyone. Frank gets an idea to place a rhyming ad in the paper, meet women who respond in a restaurant and take the prints from their drinking glasses. Frank's precinct chief is skeptical, but changes his mind when Brown turns up dead in the same manner as the other two murder victims.
Frank has dinner with several women, while Sherman — posing as a waiter — puts their glasses into evidence bags. One woman, divorcee Helen Cruger, shows no interest in Frank and leaves without taking a drink, so Frank is unable to get her fingerprints. Frank bumps into her again at a market, but this time she is more friendly. Helen manages a chic upscale shoe store. Frank does not reveal his true occupation.
Frank takes her to his place, against his better judgment and a warning from Sherman not to do so. They start getting passionate, but Frank panics after finding a gun in her purse and treats her roughly. It turns out to be a starting pistol. Frank apologizes, and they have sex.
Frank and Helen begin a romance. He has a chance to obtain Helen's fingerprints on a glass but decides to wipe the glass clean. Their relationship becomes strained when she discovers that he is a cop. One night when he is drunk, he nearly gives away the fact that Helen was involved in a sting. He starts to confess his feelings for her, but then discovers that she responded to each of the victims' ads. When he confronts her, Helen refuses to admit to anything, so he throws her out.
Moments later, the real killer bursts into the apartment: Helen's ex-husband Terry, who has been stalking Helen and murdering the men she dates. At gunpoint, he makes Frank lie on his bed and show how he made love to Helen, just as he had done to his other victims before murdering them. Frank manages to overpower Terry and tries to call the police, but Terry lunges at him and, in the ensuing struggle, Frank throws Terry through the bedroom window to his death.
Several weeks later, a newly sober Frank reunites with Helen. She forgives him, and they resume their relationship.Al Pacino as Detective Frank Keller
Ellen Barkin as Helen Cruger
John Goodman as Detective Sherman Touhey
Michael Rooker as Terry Cruger
William Hickey as Frank Keller Sr.
Richard Jenkins as Gruber
John Spencer as Precinct Chief
Michael O'Neill as Raymond Brown
Samuel L. Jackson as Black Guy
Ellen Barkin later said she "did not enjoy making" the movie:
But Al Pacino, on the other hand, was my savior. And that was a wonderful thing. Just the fact that everything about Sea Of Love was wrong, except there I had, arguably, one of the great American actors as my fierce, fearsome protector, and that felt amazing to me and gave me a level of confidence that I certainly never would have had without him.
The movie received positive reviews from critics. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 77% of the reviews were positive, based on 26 reviews.
In his review in the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas called it "a slick, knowing genre film, through and through, a New York cop suspense thriller that we've seen countless times before," but stated "it can't quite keep us away from wondering how a smart woman like Helen, whose looks would stop traffic and whose work would bring her into constant contact with an array of sophisticated men, would ever resort to the personals - unless, of course, she really is a psychopath." The Variety staff review praised the film, calling it "a suspenseful film noir boasting a superlative performance by Al Pacino as a burned-out Gotham cop."
Hal Hinson, in a mixed review for The Washington Post, stated that if the film "were able to get it all, it would be a great movie. As it is, it's stirring and messy and hints at more than it is capable of delivering." Roger Ebert, giving the film three out of four stars, praised the acting of Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin, but thought "the ending ... cheats by bringing in a character from left field at the last moment. Part of the fun in a movie like this is guessing the identity of the killer, and part of the problem ... is that the audience is not fairly treated. Technically, I suppose, the plot can be justified. But I felt cheated. I had good feelings for the characters and their relationships, but I walked out feeling the plot played fast and loose with the rules of whodunits."
A sequence in Sea of Love was selected in a scientific study as one of two sequences that were most able to produce surprise in viewers.
The film did well domestically, debuting at No. 1. In its second week it had a 22% drop. Sea of Love grossed $58.5 million domestically and $52.3 million overseas to a total of $110.9 million worldwide.