Hollywood types have yet to be divested of the notion that their personal in-jokes translate well to the rest of the country, so this season, not only do we get Phone Booth, in which a showbiz publicist is held hostage by a sniper, but also People I Know, in which a different publicist is made to look utterly pathetic. Film critics deal with publicists all the time, which is why movies about PR folks (America's Sweethearts, say) occasionally get good reviews -- we're in on the joke, after all. But the average person never deals with these hired boosters, and may come away wondering why Al Pacino is doing his best to look so awful.
Pacino makes an unlikely publicist to begin with. The prerequisites for these jobs, at least in the entertainment industry, are generally youth, perkiness and enthusiasm, of which aging Al has none, at least in this film. In case you don't get the point, he actually says of himself, "I should be embalmed," is repeatedly told he looks terrible, and in one instance is specifically described as "moth-eaten." Appearance-wise, Pacino looks like he hasn't slept since last year's Insomnia, and cinematographer Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive) takes great pains to shoot him from the most unflattering angles possible. Never before has it been so clear on-screen that Pacino is really, really short.
It's possible Pacino wanted People I Know to be his About Schmidt, though this film's production predates Alexander Payne's (Pacino's character originally had an office in the World Trade Center, and extensive reshoots were required for obvious reasons). Quit being vain and relying on trademark tics, and you gain respect, as Jack Nicholson's recent Oscar nomination proves. Pacino never makes with the shouting herein, but unfortunately decides to attempt a Southern accent, which the viewer notices only about half an hour into the movie, when Al says, "Ah'm havin' a peach of a time, 'cept for the blood in my u'ine." If you find that amusing, you'll love the delirious monologue he delivers while having a catheter rammed up his penis -- yes, the blood in his urine actually becomes a plot point. Such scenes make it really hard to shake the notion that this film was conceived by someone with a major ax to grind against those paid to publicize.
Anyway, Pacino's character is named Eli Wurman, and he isn't a very good publicist. Hell, he doesn't even carry a cell phone (bravo for that, but don't expect to get hired!). Once a great civil rights advocate who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, he's been reduced to representing such stinkers as a musical titled Flypaper, but hopes to pull it together long enough to arrange a high-profile charity event for Nigerian immigrants about to be unfairly deported. To this end, he hopes that his only remaining client with any name value, an aging movie star with political ambitions (Ryan O'Neal), will endorse the benefit.
There's a quid pro quo, however. If Eli wants his top talent to be there, he has to post bail for one of the actor's mistresses, a model-actress named Jilli (Tea Leoni) who's being held on drug charges. Eli makes the deal, and tags along with the obnoxious starlet long enough to attend a top-secret opium party held late at night in a Wall Street skyscraper. When the two get kicked out, Eli escorts Jilli back to her hotel as covertly as is possible, then passes out in the bathtub on a concoction of pain pills and alcohol. Through the doorway, he thinks he sees a sudden act of violence, but chalks it up to the drugs and walks out the door the next day entirely unaware that he may be the only witness.
In a way, the crime and its aftereffects recall Eyes Wide Shut, in that both movies feature a subplot involving the powerful elite holding secret gatherings of debauchery that may or may not contribute to the deaths of people who stumble onto the secret. Unfortunately, just like in Kubrick's final film, it's a theme that's almost a total red herring. Writer Jon Robin Baitz (an actor and playwright making his feature scripting debut) and director Dan Algrant (Naked in New York) couldn't care less about the suspense angle; they're going for a character study. It might have worked better if they could've convinced Pacino to drop that damn accent, in which the game of Ping-Pong is apparently pronounced "pang-pawng." Coming out of the film with some dignity is Kim Basinger, who takes the thankless role of being the younger love interest for an aging star and makes it into something more. As the wife of Eli's dead brother, she's a bundle of conflicting emotions, yet still the guiding light that Eli's in danger of completely ignoring. Also, her Southern accent is entirely believable. Basinger may be going on 50 this year, but she hasn't looked this good, physically and acting-wise, in a long time.
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