Yesterday Once More

Queasy Riders Remember Old Glories

People I Know, which might more accurately be titled The Al Pacino Show, features the irrepressible veteran star as an irrepressible veteran New York publicist. Half broken-down yet hardly ever offscreen, Pacino's Eli Wurman is a dynamo of canny befuddlement—wheedling, wheezing, and warding off a nervous collapse even while organizing a glamorous benefit for African students in danger of deportation.

A pill-gobbling, power-shlumping Southern Jew of indeterminate sexual preferences, Wurman is not just a champion celebrity wrangler but an old-time showbiz liberal. (Less low-rent than Colin Farrell's skeevy hustler in Phone Booth but equally allergic to cell phones, the character is evidently inspired by Broadway PR legend Bobby Zarem, who's thanked in the credits for his help.) Wurman is under contractual obligation to wax teary every 15 minutes over his presence beside Dr. King on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; a poster in his office for the 1974 paranoid thriller The Parallax View further explicates his politics. Indeed, Wurman seems to have invented a new hyphenate, the publicist-Jeremiah, as well as a coiffure to match—the electrified Woody Woodpecker sprout.

People I Know, directed by Dan Algrant from Jon Robin Baitz's original screenplay, is predicated on a single question: Can Pacino keep things interesting? (You'll know the answer if you don't flee the theater five minutes into the movie.) Think of People I Know as one long, Elizabethan death scene—or a single sustained rant, delivered by the star in a drawl rendered all the more mellifluous by being pitched half an octave higher than his usual range. Another thing to ponder: Is "Wurman" meant to be a verb? Pacino's jowls nearly scrape the pavement, but for all his kvetchin', he's the most positive thinker on Broadway. Periodically a devoted sister-in-law (Kim Basinger) transports herself into the plot like Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. "It's all just lurching," she hazards—to which Eli replies, "Ah guess."

Irrepressible: Al Pacino's Wurman turn in People I Know
photo: Miramax Films
Irrepressible: Al Pacino's Wurman turn in People I Know

Details

People I Know
Directed by Dan Algrant
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Miramax
Opens April 25

A Decade Under the Influence
Directed by Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme
IFC
Opens April 25, at the Quad

Marooned in Iraq
Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi
Wellspring
Opens April 25, at Lincoln Plaza

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The most important remaining pony in the Wurman stable of stars is one Cary Launer (Ryan O'Neal), a supposedly Beatty-esque leading man with a clenched smile and vague political aspirations. ("I introduced you to the Panthers," Eli gratuitously reminds him, as if to be thanked for subtracting potential votes.) Launer sets the plot in motion by rousting Wurman from his bed at midnight to clean up a little mess; the bleary publicist is sent downtown to bail out the star's current fling, belligerently dissolute starlet Jilli Hopper (played, with disarming gusto, by Téa Leoni).

No sooner is the disorderly party girl released from stir than she drags her unwilling rescuer on a fool's errand to a high-tech opium den-cum-orgy parlor inconspicuously housed in a Wall Street skyscraper. (Tout le cast turns out to be there, but the shenanigans are not exactly mind-blowing—shouldn't one have expected better from a director who spent much of the past half-decade packaging Sex and the City?) Still, Eli and Jilli's excellent adventure allows for the movie's best sparring and juiciest dialogue, particularly once they wind up back at her hotel. "This room looks like a vagina," Wurman exclaims, wrinkling his nose. "How would you know?" is the tart response.

Although a marked improvement over Algrant's nightmarishly whimsical debut, Naked in New York, People I Know is perfumed less by the sweet smell of success than the musty aroma of the Miramax vault. The movie is dated 2001, but it feels even older. Although a shot of the twin towers, rotated to a horizontal position to suggest Eli's drug-addled consciousness, was reportedly cut, the backstory makes much of a current mayor contemplating a run for senator.

The name "Rudy Giuliani" is never uttered, but Wurman is forever railing against New York's repressive regime: "This town used to open up for people. It's become a police state." Unfortunately, the Wurman conception of New York's gorgeous mosaic is a cocktail party where a posse of posturing black militants and a cabal of sinister Jewish financiers find common ground in their starstruck desire to consort with the grimacing likes of Cary Launer (hilariously introduced as an Oscar winner). Something wicked is afoot, but unfortunately, Baitz's intimations of conspiracy are even murkier than his protag's politics.

An expired shelf life is integral to the movie's downbeat charm. Like Wurman, People I Know is a proud anachronism. The mad, whirling day-in-the-life structure ultimately derives from such obsolete models as Blow-up, Shampoo, and Blow Out. But Baitz and Algrant are living in an even bleaker world. These must truly be the latter days when the publicist is conscience to a guilty society. PR the World! Flack is beautiful!


Eli Wurman would be right at home flogging A Decade Under the Influence, one of two current documentaries celebrating the golden age of '70s Hollywood. (In fact, he might even take credit for it.)

As chronicled by Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, source and title of the other doc, these were the few brief years when movies were "the opposite of product." Decade, directed by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, immediately plunges into the chaos of the late '60s, epitomized by the supremely clueless premiere for the studio dinosaur Hello Dolly, and then rounds up many of the usual suspects: Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, and the unintelligible Paul Schrader, among other luminaries of the old new Hollywood.

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