Arriving less than a year after 2002’s Insomnia and Simone, People I Know completes Al Pacino’s recent trilogy of weariness. Here he plays Eli Wurman, an aging publicist sleepwalking through 24 hectic hours in shadowy Manhattan.
Scheduled for release in 2001, the film was delayed indefinitely in the wake of 9/11, in part because it portrays an unseen New York City mayor in an unflattering light. While it’s doubtful People I Know would’ve come off any better or worse if released closer to the events of 9/11, it does seem a little worse for wear following 25th Hour and Gangs of New York, films that seem so in tune, in their ways, with New York’s love-hate affair with itself. People I Know is more conventional and less ambitious than either of those projects, and only has Pacino and a suitably seedy New York vibe to generate some fleeting interest.
Some of this vibe emerges in shifting backgrounds and constant movement; director Daniel Algrant, gets the visual aspect of the material right: at times, the people around Eli sometimes literally blur together into a haze. The film’s other recognizably New Yorkish element is the dialogue in Jon Robin Baitz’s script, adopting a back-and-forth rhythm that sounds like an Off-Broadway play. It’s mostly a series of duets between Pacino and various other characters. These include Kim Basinger, as Eli’s sister-in-law; Téa Leoni as a starlet whom Pacino is dispatched to bail out of jail and escort out of town; and Ryan O’Neal as the vaguely Warren Beatty-esque Cary Launer (funny how O’Neal, now so thoroughly relegated to the status of character actor, plays purportedly handsome movie stars, politicians, and millionaires).
Dialogue is important in any New York City movie, and People I Know combines hit-or-miss writing with some hit-or-miss actors. Leoni has fun with the drugged-out Jilli’s nasty one-liners; Basinger struggles with Victoria’s painfully earnest pleading.
And then there’s Pacino. Aside from never getting a firm grasp on Eli’s Georgia accent, he’s in good form, keeping the ham to a minimum. Everyone knows he’s become fond of roaring over the top, but what’s most prominent in People I Know is how small Pacino looks (he hasn’t seemed this diminutive since Donnie Brasco). It’s as if life in the city is slowly shrinking Eli.
This, combined with his tendency to natter, brings to mind Dustin Hoffman at his most antsy. Eli, we are told, was once involved with the Civil Rights movement, and now grasps for meaning in his waning career, desperately trying to corral celebrities for a benefit involving immigrants on the verge of deportation. Eli Wurman is always working the room, and also working himself, trying to leave something, anything, behind. It’s a tribute to Pacino’s skill as an actor that, although we pity Eli, we also understand his fatigue.
It seems right, to place Pacino’s world-weariness in an up-all-night city like New York (Insomnia could have easily been an alternate title here). It’s also a clever stroke to place Eli in the middle of a possible conspiracy involving a murder he’s not sure if he’s witnessed. Eli has a Parallax View poster hanging on his office wall; the contrast between his professional and spiritual wandering (he always has someplace to be, and never looks like he wants to be there) and a paranoid intrepid journalist movie like View is a smart joke, like The Big Lebowski‘s bent version of The Big Sleep. Here, Eli, in a constantly mobile, pill-guzzling daze, can’t quite dope out the mystery until it’s more or less explained to him, and even then, he simply soldiers on with his publicist duties (“I don’t know what to do,” he says in perhaps the movie’s most honest, sad moment).
Early in the film, this wandering quality can be frustrating, as several scenes bring you so close to Eli’s lack of clarity that the movie slows to a crawl. The murder scene, for example, focuses so intently on Eli’s tired eyes that the impact (which should be sudden and disorienting) is blunted. But the story finds a good pace later on, and its ending, set in the earliest hours of daylight, is fitting, if slightly severe. People I Know is neither the finest slice of recent Pacino nor a fully satisfying New York story; the lapsed Southern accent hinders the former, and the staginess wounds the latter. But, like Eli, it continues to move forward, and even if it doesn’t mean much, you sympathize.