Film of the Week: 'People I Know'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  April 24, 2003 at 12:35 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 24 (UPI) -- "People I Know" should appeal to fans of the Al Pacino School of Acting for the Sake of Acting. Pacino is in every scene of this stagey indie drama depicting 24 grueling hours in the life of an over-the-hill New York celebrity publicist. If you've always wanted to watch Pacino grow even more haggard before your very eyes, this is the movie for you.

Although any actress younger than Katharine Hepburn would look youthful playing opposite Pacino, Oscar-winner Kim Basinger, who turns 50 later this year, is particularly luminous as his sister-in-law who tries to rescue him from his self-imposed death march.

As haphazardly as the plot is developed, and as much of an ordeal as the first half is (watching Pacino undergo exploratory urological surgery is a special treat), the underlying roman à clef is still strong enough to make "People I Know" modestly memorable.

Pacino's character is evidently modeled on Bobby Zarem, a Jewish Southerner who was king of the Manhattan flacks during the Disco Era. Unfortunately, the sad sack star doesn't show many flashes of the flamboyant ebullience that makes Zarem a legend. We have to take on faith that he's a tragic hero. And don't get me started on Pacino's intermittent attempts at a Southern accent ...

Dustin Hoffman, a superior character actor who was hilarious portraying a Bob Evans-style producer in "Wag the Dog," would have been a better choice.

By the year 2000, too many parties and too many pills have left the former king of Elaine's with only one famous client, a matinee idol and leftist ladies man played by Ryan O'Neal ("Love Story"). He's clearly modeled on Warren Beatty, all the way down to his forwarding op-eds to his pal Arianna Huffington.

Pacino's character, who marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, is trying to schmooze every limousine liberal in town into attending a gala benefit at the Palm Restaurant for the defense fund of some illegal aliens that the evil Republican anti-crime mayor (i.e., Rudy Giuliani) wants to deport to Nigeria.

Although every celebrity the publicist tries to wheedle into coming would love to be the most famous person in the world, none of them wants to be the most famous person in the room. Regis Philbin, for example, demands to know exactly who else will be there before he'll commit.

(Unlike his character, the real Pacino was unwilling or unable to make the phone calls necessary to get real celebrities to do cameos, leaving Regis as the only big name to play himself in the movie. This deprives the downcast movie of the kind of self-mockery that so many stars gleefully engaged in on "The Larry Sanders Show.")

The press agent never quite grasps that this isn't much of a cause célèbre. After decades of demeaning himself in the service of narcissistic stars, his entire self-worth rests on his remaining a civil rights activist. He barely notices that black leadership has devolved from Dr. King to an anti-Semitic Harlem minister-hustler, a cross between Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan, who cares more about his bottom line than some poor Nigerians.

To pull off the fundraiser, Pacino must ensure the appearance of his own glamorous and irresponsible client, who wants to run for the Senate from New York. To please the star, though, Pacino first must bail the star's latest girlfriend (Tea Leoni of "Deep Impact") out of jail. She then drags him to an upscale opium den where she has dropped a camera she desperately wants back.

There, they run into a Wall Street billionaire (played by Richard Schiff of "The West Wing" and perhaps based on the new mayor Michael Bloomberg) who leads the conservative Jewish wing of the New York City Democratic establishment.

He too is looking for Leoni's camera. He hopes it contains a picture of the Beatty character using drugs, which would prevent the radical chic actor from seducing the highly liberal voters in the Democratic primary. The Jewish powerbrokers fear that if nominated, he would be crushed in the general election by the Giulianiesque mayor, and that might cost the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

Unfortunately, the plot deteriorates into hackneyed territory when Leoni is murdered, apparently on the orders of the Jewish elite, who are offensively portrayed meeting in a secret conclave as if they were the Elders of Zion.

Look, only in movies do top American politicians and corporate executives have people rubbed out.

What does happen, however, is that those close to the famous occasionally die suddenly and suspiciously, like Vince Foster and Chandra Levy, opening up the public figures' private lives to unwanted scrutiny. Having Leoni instead die of an overdose, thus forcing Pacino to try to spin her corpse out of existence, would have helped "People I Know" fulfill its potential.

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