People I Know is a character study cum murder mystery that won’t be known to many theatre patrons and won’t be missed. It’s a labored 24-hour journey with a worn-out New York publicist (also known as a press agent) struggling to maintain the residue of vitality he enjoyed in an earlier life. More characters in the story show him the admiration he once commanded than moviegoers are likely to. There’s not much to admire.
The film starts with entrenched Big Apple dweller Al Pacino affecting a Georgia accent — interesting, but no more required by the plotline than if he had come from Florida or North Dakota. About all the southern background does for his character, Eli Wurman, is provide an exaggeration to his promotional pushiness at one time, and slow, slurry speech to befit his character’s drug-induced degradation at other times.
The script attempts to establish Eli as a sympathetic character by mixing a publicist’s ethics with an activist’s dedication to charitable causes. On balance, the altruism of putting together a benefit party for unconstitutionally detained African nationals seems suspect as he makes it as spinnable and self-glorifying as he can, enlisting all the famous names from movies and local politics that he can round up. He starts with star client Cary Launer (Ryan O’Neal), a scandal-plagued playboy extraordinaire, who fires him but then asks him to bail out starlet/ex-girlfriend Jilli Hopper (Téa Leoni) from jail. Eli complies, exercising nightlong efforts to bring her down from a drug high and provide some caring comfort. Before the night is over, though, he sees something he shouldn’t have, injecting an element of lethal risk into the character study, with more than a nod at the central concept of the classic Witness.
When Eli’s sister-in-law Victoria Gray (Kim Basinger) shows up, and we learn that his brother has died, there’s a suspicion that his lapse into drugged ennui might derive from grief. That’s put to rest when the further interplay between the pair discloses that there’s more than a sisterly bond between them and that she’s not in New York for just a little brotherly back-patting.
Through his lethargic haze, Eli shows the occasional flash of a brilliant pitch, suggesting his one-time effectiveness in promoting careers. But our interest in him never quite reaches a level to carry us through the fogbound mixing of genres and messages. As our hero plays political footsies with Reverend Lyle Blunt (Bill Nunn) and influential pol Elliot Sharansky (Richard Schiff, off his West Wing set), the points being made about corruption are background noise, rendered into merely detestable foibles.
Daniel Algrant (TV’s Sex and the City) directs from a script by Jon Robin Baitz (TV’s West Wing). Where they go wrong is bringing in murder and a cover-up to beef up the dramatic tension, and then submerging that element in the background so as not to overpower the uncompelling character portrayal of a bedraggled, self-loathing promoter. The result is unfocused and grave, with a set of folks we can’t care much about.
Pacino’s dour performance seems to drain him as much as it does us, suggesting that his real-life disdain for press agents entered into the equation. Basinger is a breath of country air in the congested surroundings, but she doesn’t carry enough oxygen to vitalize the picture or her co-star. The little comic relief managing to get through is mainly the contribution of Mark Webber, Eli’s antagonized assistant. But no matter how you cut it, the sympathy-for-the-publicist theme (see also Phone Booth) is given no boost by this tepid attempt to shine light on their plight.
Now on DVD, you also get a commentary track from Algrant, plus a pair of extended versions of scenes (cut because they feature the World Trade Center).
Glad to know ya for all of 90 minutes.