It is a pleasure, then, to watch "People I Know," a character piece that puts Pacino's acting chops to work in a very different role as Eli Wurman, an old-school New York publicist in the twilight of his career. His star client list has dwindled down to one, so he fills the rest of his schedule with favors to old friends, such as the producers of "Flypaper," the latest off-off-Broadway bust. "People I Know" takes place over the course of a 24-hour period when Eli's health, career and very life spiral out of control as he prepares for a charity benefit for some African refugees--a pet project that he has dedicated himself to in an effort to quell the nagging feeling that he has wasted his life.
Pacino is superb as Eli, who is at the end of his rope in this film due to a lifetime of too little sleep and too many drugs. The actor has adopted a hunched posture, yet moves in a perpetual forward motion: Always on the go, he's got things to do, places to go, people to see. Pacino also has eschewed any vestiges of vanity: His hair and clothes are disheveled, his demeanor distracted. Yet when called upon, he can turn on the fire to rouse an important benefactor. The moving camera, too, emulates the haze in which Eli goes about his day, heightening the effect in a modern-day opium den.
Tea Leoni makes an appealing turn as the tempestuous, spoiled starlet whom he is dispatched to handle, but ultimately she is miscast. A mature, accomplished actress, she comes across as such rather than an ingénue. Kim Basinger is luminous but used for little more than a sounding board for Eli's frustrations and fantasies. Ryan O'Neal, on the other hand, is terrific as the aging, still-handsome actor ready to move on to the next stage in his career: politics.
But while Pacino is compulsively watchable here, the subject matter isn't. The film's inside look at the life of a New York publicist is an intriguing one and certainly a character little-explored in the movies, which tend to focus instead on the people they represent. But the topic might be too insular for those outside the industry, and it's not an upbeat portrait and thus could be alienating to those familiar with this world: Eli is deeply dissatisfied with the course his life has taken. While he claims friendships with some of the most powerful people in showbiz and politics, ultimately he's nothing more than their lapdog. Worse, he knows it. "I went to Harvard Law," he implores, and, more directly, "This is not my life. I can't live like this." He's at a point where he finally wants out of the rat race but is not sure that he can escape. The picture's final, upside-down reverse zoom of the city skyline only further emphasizes its courageous characterization of New York as perhaps the greatest city in the world, but also capable of being an evil, murderous entity. Starring Al Pacino, Tea Leoni, Kim Basinger and Ryan O'Neal. Directed by Daniel Algrant. Written by Jon Robin Baitz. Produced by Leslie Urdang and Karen Tenkhoff. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for language, drug use and brief sexual images. Running time: 94 min