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'People I Know'

Pacino is at his best in 'People'

Friday, August 15, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Eli Wurman's impeccable liberal credentials are established in the opening credits: a montage of photographs and newspaper clippings showing him marching at Selma, fund raising for Bobby Kennedy, glad-handing Jesse Jackson -- inter alios People He Knows.


RATING: R for language, drug use and brief sexual images

STARRING: Al Pacino, Kim Basinger, Tea Leoni, Ryan O'Neal

DIRECTOR: Dan Algrant


But that was then. Now, he's the Incredible Hull -- a wreck of a publicist, whose celebrity roster is down to one celebrity. Once upon a time, he was the "fixer" for stars who got in trouble with starlets. These days, Eli is the one in trouble, and he knows it. He's gone from big risk taker to big drug taker. But he has to pull off one last Manhattan political benefit and take care of one last starlet for his one last star before heading off to blissful retirement in Connecticut.

His ominous mantra: "All I can tell ya is, the clock is tickin' away."

So is the time bomb in "People I Know" and the explosive performance of its star, Al Pacino. ("You look awful, Eli -- you don't look like you can take much more of this," everyone keeps telling him.) Indeed, he's as corrupt and dissipated as they come, and he has squandered whole sections of his life, but the one thing he's sincere about is that Big Benefit for a group of unjustly jailed Africans -- "We're gonna bring together the Jews, the stars and all the brothers!"

Everything in the film is a build-up to that event. How's it gonna shake down?

It won't shake down at all if he doesn't get Cary Launer to attend. Cary (deliciously, cynically played by Ryan O'Neal) is that Oscar-winning star, who won't show up until and unless Eli takes care of that troublesome starlet (Tea Leoni).

The multiple plot issues will coalesce around an orgiastic party and a heinous crime in a nightmarish nighttime vision of New York City. This underworld of the rich and powerful makes the similar environment in "Sweet Smell of Success" look like a day care center.

At its -- and the film's center -- is Pacino, an actor who is physically smaller and emotionally larger than life. The performance here ranks with his best, though it will not be popular. That crackling, pathetic, high whine of a voice becomes increasingly falsetto-fascinating with his desperation. "I'm turning into Janis Joplin!" he moans tragicomically, getting glassier and glassier, seedier and seedier.

There are fine performances all around, especially from the evilly suntanned O'Neal, the out-of-control Leoni and from young Mark Webber as Eli's long-suffering assistant.

Director Dan Algrant, primarily known for his good "Sex and the City" episodes, is deft and dogged in telling the story. This is just his second feature film (the first was "Naked in New York") -- and I wouldn't bring my elderly Aunt Thelmah to it.

Algrant's relentlessly grim "People" has long been waiting in the can to find a release date and an audience. The former is no guarantee of the latter. But you are guaranteed to find Pacino riveting.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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