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.”
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.
So how did Biskind’s “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll generation” save the motion picture industry? The social theory is familiar—the influence of foreign films and campus cinephilia, years of war and social breakdown, and the demographics of the baby boom created a new movie audience. At once self-satisfied and reproachful, Decade is looking for a somewhat newer audience. The movie’s basic m.o. is a barrage of dropped names and a blitz of 10-second clips. (The craziest juxtaposition has a clip from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal underscored with “Street Fighting Man.”) A Decade Under the Influence does attest to the once-upon-a-time existence of a Hollywood counterculture, but it’s so reverentially heavy-handed in evoking the era that it can’t help playing like Forrest Gump without Tom Hanks.
Blessed with the season’s most topical title, Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq opens like a Upper Slobovian parody of Easy Rider. Leaning forward on his chopper, the mustachioed, middle-aged hipster Barat—resplendent in green plastic goggles—motivates through the craggy mountains of northwestern Iran, as towed by a ramshackle tractor. Jets are streaking overhead, the boombox is blasting, and in the sidecar, a kindred coot, who turns out to be some sort of corrupt doctor, is shouting, “God bless Saddam’s father—thanks to him, I made a lot of money.”
No less than Easy Rider, Marooned in Iraq is a music-fueled road movie. And like Ghobadi’s sometimes harrowing, quasi-documentary first feature, A Time for Drunken Horses, his second one is set on the Iraq-Iran border—albeit this time in the gruesome aftermath of the first Gulf War. Saddam’s air force is now bombing Iraqi Kurds and Barat’s father, Mirza, is concerned for his long-estranged wife, who is currently trapped in Iraq. The old man drafts the feckless Barat and his brother, the buffoonish, bushy-haired patriarch Audeh, to accompany him on his romantic rescue mission.
Ghobadi treats this material as though it were the premise for one of Tony Gatlif or Emir Kusturica’s Gypsy funkfests. Barat, Audeh, and Mirza (who gives recitals beneath an inverted dumpster) are all locally famous musicians. The movie’s original title was The Songs of My Homeland—and at one point there’s a mock socialist-realist (or perhaps faux Bollywood) montage of villagers working away in rhythm. Traveling from one refugee camp to another, Mirza, Barat, and Audeh are constantly called upon, and sometimes compelled, to entertain. Their wildly rhythmic numbers typically inspire spontaneous chorus lines and madcap dancing, but the movie has its poetic aspects as well: Barat hears a woman sing and immediately begins flirting with her shadow.
Cast with nonactors, Marooned in Iraq is predicated on outrageous, grizzled, toothless typage and crowded with cartoon bluster. Although Marooned is a denser, funnier movie than the more straightforward Drunken Horses, it grows increasingly grim as the characters approach Iraq. Weddings give way to wailing funerals. Beaten and robbed, the musicians cross the border into a realm of snow and barbwire to find mass graves and orphans. The ending is open; the characters separate to fulfill their individual destinies. This lusty, heartfelt movie has a near Brueghelian visual energy and a humanist passion as contagious as its music.