PARK CITY -- In "People I Know", Al Pacino
is in every scene. The movie sticks to his character like a hound dog to its master. The story focuses a brutal light on a veteran New York publicist in the twilight of his career, a guy who is never in the limelight but always behind the scenes, cheerleading, cajoling and manipulating others. This is the dynamic that makes the movie play as well as it does -- a star playing the kind of guy many stars disdain. Clearly, Pacino sympathizes with this PR man, seeing all his failed potential yet determined to see if the man has what it takes to redeem himself.
Miramax has let this film sit on the shelf for a while, and you can see why. It's a highly political movie that has strong things to say about blacks, Jews, race relations, political chicanery and celebrity culture, where a benefit cocktail party desperately needs Regis Philbin
to show up to be a success. There is also a problem: One senses things are missing, that writer John Robin Baitz and director Dan Algrant rushed the project into production when Pacino said yes without fleshing out the screenplay with the details and conflicts that would have made the film a richer experience.
Nevertheless, "People I Know" ranks with "Sweet Smell of Success" in its ruthless portrayal of the publicity business. And Pacino's compelling performance should give a boxoffice boost to a film with a nasty edge and something of a cop-out ending.
The movie spends a little over 24 hours with Pacino's Eli Wurman, a Southern Jew who has operated in Manhattan as a publicist since graduating from Harvard Law School. Now that right there is enough to intrigue any viewer. A Southern Jew in New York? Harvard Law School? Unfortunately, these background details are never fully explained.
Does the Jewish cabal -- who want to gain greater political clout in New York but prefer to do so with one of their own, billionaire Elliot Sharansky (Richard Schiff
), rather than movie star/politician Cary Launer (Ryan O'Neal) -- view Eli as an outsider? They certainly view him with suspicion, but it's never clear that his Southern ancestry is the cause of that discomfort. Perhaps it's enough that Cary is his last important client.
And how does a guy who marched with Martin Luther King
Jr. and went to Harvard Law wind up in PR? Why was he willing to settle for being a facilitator rather than a mover and shaker?
Well, he did, and he's a burnout case now. Subsisting on coffee, cigarettes, booze and pharmaceuticals prescribed by a concerned Dr. Napier (Robert Klein), Eli plows through an all-nighter that begins with the opening of a stinker play on Broadway and moves on to a "favor" for Cary that turns his world upside down. Cary wants Eli to post bail for his latest fling, TV starlet Jilli (Tea Leoni), and get her out of town fast. But the temperamental actress insists on dragging Eli to an after-hours joint. Now in a drug/alcohol haze, Eli seems unaware of the dangers he is exposing himself to.
Next morning, Jilli is found dead in a hotel room, and Eli has no recollection of what he may have witnessed. He gathers whatever energy he has left to seduce important people into attending his political fund-raiser. Meanwhile, his brother's widow (Kim Basinger
) arrives in town on a mercy mission to rescue Eli from this mad world for the comforts and joy of her home in Virginia.
Nobody plays rumpled, hollow men who have seen it all better than Pacino. He can manage to look worn-out and frazzled yet remain the driving force behind the narrative. Orbiting around this star turn are precise portraits by a strong supporting cast including Leoni's tough-cookie starlet, O'Neal's overbearing superstar, Bill Nunn
's media-savvy Harlem minister, Schiff's smooth political operator, Klein's physician with conflicting loyalties and Basinger's tender caregiver.
Working amid recognizable New York locations with cinematographer Peter Deming
and production designer Michael Shaw, Algrant creates a vivid netherworld of venality and corruption among the privileged classes, where media, politics and showbiz merge into an environment where who you know is all that matters.
PEOPLE I KNOW
Myriad Pictures presents a South Fork Pictures production in association with Galena/Greenstreet Films, Chal Prods., In-Motion AG and WMF
Credits: Director: Dan Algrant; Screenwriter: John Robin Baitz; Producers: Michael Nozik, Leslie Ur dang, Karen Tenkhoff; Executive producers: Robert Redford, Kirk D'Amico, Philip von Alverselben; Director of photography: Peter Deming; Production designer: Michael Shaw; Music: Terence Blanchard; Co-producer: Nellie Nugiel; Costume designer: David Robinson; Editor: Suzy Elmiger
. Cast: Eli Wurman: Al Pacino; Victoria Gray: Kim Basinger; Cary Launer: Ryan O'Neal; Jilli Hopper: Tea Leoni; Elliot Sharansky: Richard Schiff; The Rev. Lyle Blunt: Bill Nunn; Dr. Sandy Napier: Robert Klein.
MPAA rating R, running time 99 minutes.