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People I Know (May 8/03)

Though People I Know is a fairly lousy movie, Al Pacino should nevertheless be commended for refusing to go the Robert DeNiro route with his career. Rather than take the easy way out and appear in a variety of disposable comedies, Pacino continually seeks out actual characters to play - rather than the caricatures DeNiro seems to specialize in.

In People I Know, Pacino plays Eli Wurman - a New York City based publicist whose best days are behind him. In an opening credits montage, we see Eli hanging out with dozens of well-known figures; nowadays, his only client is a sleazy actor named Cary (Ryan O'Neal). Through the course of one particularly tumultuous night, Eli winds up escorting one of Cary's latest flings (played by Tea Leoni) around town. After an excursion into an opium den, the two crash at her hotel - where she is seemingly murdered by an unknown assailant. Eli doesn't remember a thing the following day, and begins to put the pieces together while coordinating a benefit dinner for a group of jailed Nigerians.

There's not much of interest in People I Know, starting with Pacino's character. Though the actor does a good job of portraying Eli's addiction to various pills and ceaseless confusion, the character never becomes someone the audience cares about in the least - mostly because we're never given a reason to. There's no doubt that Eli is likely an accurate representation of a man whose glory days are firmly behind him, but that doesn't mean that he's a character worth following for 90+ minutes. It certainly doesn't help that Eli spends the majority of the film in a groggy stupor, preventing us from ever sympathizing with the man.

The look of the film isn't much better, as it presents a view of New York City that's dark and grungy. The initial trip through the opium den is an incredibly disorienting experience, and not in a good way. Like the jaunt into a bordello in last year's Roger Dodger, the film mistakes darkness for realism - but there's a crucial difference between the two. Aside from that brief sequence, director Dan Algrant keeps the majority of People I Know shrouded in murky grime - whether this was for aesthetic reasons or a necessity due to the low budget, it's hard to tell. But either way, it ensures that the film is incredibly unpleasant on a purely visceral level.

Add to those failings a silly half-baked conspiracy plot involving a cabal of rich businessmen, and you've got a film that's ill-conceived on so many levels. Simone features Pacino playing a similar character, but it's far more successful and entertaining; skip People I Know and rent that.

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