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People I Know (2002)

September 14th, 2007 · 2 Comments

“Miramax is brilliant at publicizing its successes, but it’s even more brilliant at burying its failures,” said Dennis Rice, their former president of marketing. Miramax Films was notorious for test screening its movies – often in malls in New Jersey – and barely releasing the ones that scored poorly. Some went straight to video, even those with major stars. Here’s a look at some of the studio’s B-sides, bombs and greatest misses.

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New York publicist Eli Wurman (Al Pacino) exits the disastrous opening of a play that he invested in for a friend. “I don’t gauge things by how people react,” he spins the author. His late brother’s widow (Kim Basinger) visits from Virginia, but Eli sprints to the after party, where he works to fill the guest list for a benefit he’s throwing the next night for three Nigerian immigrants being deported as part of a mass INS roundup.

His only client – silver screen lothario Cary Launer (Ryan O’Neal) – summons Eli to bail his latest conquest out of jail, TV starlet Jilli Hopper (Tea Leoni). She drags Eli to Wall Street at 2 am to a floating opium party where she’s left her “toy.” This turns out to be a recording device that Jilli has used to catch some of the city’s rich and powerful in compromising positions, including billionaire Elliot Sharansky (Richard Schiff).

Drugged out and exhausted, Eli wakes in Jilli’s hotel room. He goes to Harlem to woo the demagogue Reverend Blunt (Bill Nunn) to attend his benefit. He then learns that Jilli overdosed, and he can’t remember what he saw the night before. Cary not only refuses to attend Eli’s benefit, but fires him as his publicist. Eli discovers the sought after recording device, and uses it to try to lure Cary and Sharansky to his benefit at the last minute.

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Production history 
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz approached director Dan Algrant with the idea for a film about Bobby Zarem, a legendary Gotham publicist. Algrant considered making a documentary, but opted instead for a feature film based only loosely Zarem. Algrant wanted to comment on how the New York he knew had changed radically under Mayor Giuliani, shifting away from liberal ideals and becoming increasingly intolerant.

Budgeted at $20 million, People I Know wrapped filming in April 2001. It was in post-production on September 11. Algrant lived five blocks from Ground Zero, and the film’s downtown cutting room was inaccessible for days after the collapse of the World Trade Center. When he was able to go back to work, Algrant discovered that how you could depict New York City on film had changed dramatically since the terrorist attacks.

Before 9/11, the film was to feature a shot in which Pacino’s disorientation is expressed by the camera tilting sideways, picturing the World Trade Center laying on its side. The shot was obviously removed, but studio chairman Harvey Weinstein hesitated to distribute the film due to its downbeat assessment of New York’s political landscape.

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Despite talk of an Academy Award nomination for Pacino prior to 9/11, People I Know had a silent world premiere over a year later in Rome. Audiences in the U.S. finally got a peek at the film during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003 (Robert Redford served as the film’s executive producer), but it came and went from theaters in April amid poor reviews and no support from Miramax.

I don’t know how much of the critical backlash had to do with 9/11 and how much had to do with the movie, but People I Know is actually good. It follows 24 hours in the life of a man battling for the ideals he once aspired to, only to realize it’s a losing battle. The dialogue is sharp (“Man, you behave as if it’s 1970 and you’re still livin’ in Malibu,” Pacino tells O’Neal) and the script savvy, avoiding caricature by creating three-dimensional characters tangentially related to Al Sharpton or Warren Beatty.

The script does miscalculate by introducing lame plot devices; a dead starlet, a What’s It that the bad guys are after. But the film is redeemed by its brilliant performances, notably Pacino’s. Playing a walking drug prescription, juggling six balls at a time, he flat out does his finest film work in years. Terence Blanchard’s mournful, powerful jazz score is an excellent accompaniment to the film, which maintains a strong message and deserves to be seen.

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“Kim Basinger gets a few nice moments as Eli’s sister-in-law, and Mark Webber is a breath of levity as Eli’s perpetually harried assistant. And frankly, it is always a treat to watch Pacino be fantastic, even when the movie isn’t,” writes Eric D. Snider.

Jon Dunmore at Poffy the Cucumber’s Movie Mania says, “there is a powerful little movie lurking beneath the facade of PR puerility.”

“The filmmakers are either unsure of where the story should go, or else are trying to make some clumsy statements about the New York elite and the secrets we all keep. Essentially, what they end up doing is borrowing liberally from Eyes Wide Shut,” writes Patrick Bromley at DVD Verdict.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Black comedy · Hitman · Paranoia

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Sep 15, 2007 at 7:40 am

    Pacino is fantastic in this film and I think it is a shame it was buried…it is among his best performances of the past two decades…

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 16, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Jeremy: I don’t know why this movie inspired so many vicious reviews. It’s not Scent of a Woman or a mass entertainment, but it’s not trying to be. It’s 24 hours in the life of a man who’s lost control of his life. Maybe that was just too obscure for a lot of people.

    Thanks for your comment!

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