“People I Know” (2002)

by A.J. Hakari


Considering their uniformly unctuous depiction in every form of visual media there ever was, it’s still gotta suck to be a publicist. There can’t be much fun in corralling celebrities for a living, serving as their personal spin doctors, confidants, and, in effect, pimps. But People I Know is the story of a man who’s closer to losing his mind than his moral compass. It’s about a guy whose line of work no longer has any place for him, a fact that he’s either ignoring or to which he’s totally oblivious. Either way, the old ways just aren’t cutting it, and People I Know dramatically captures every sad step its protagonist takes on the road to realization.

They don’t make ’em like Eli Wurman (Al Pacino) anymore. Once upon a time, he was the toast of show business, a press agent who made deals with big names and led legions into supporting his favorite causes. Nowadays, Eli’s a burned-out shell of his former self, operating out of a tiny office with only one notable client (Ryan O’Neal) left. So desperate is he to hang onto his last star that he jumps into action when there’s a PR mess left behind, the latest of which is a jilted, coked-up TV actress (Tea Leoni). But when the next day sees a tragic event evolve into a media frenzy, Eli seems completely unaware of how involved he actually is. Has Eli’s declining health finally gotten the best of him, or is he putting all the information gathered from a life spent covering for others to noble use at last?

People I Know is better at being one kind of movie than the two it’s pulling for. It’s at its best when showing us how distant Eli’s glory days really are, how choosing his career over a more fulfilling life has left him grasping at straws. He’s so locked into schmooze mode, going through the same motions for decades, that even when he’s dragged into a seedy opium den, he can’t help but plug his upcoming charity benefit. Eli had a good run, but his detachment from reality and how cutthroat the business has grown is what comes back to bite him…and it’s where the film itself loses some of its footing.

A movie like People I Know introducing elements of conspiracy, murder, and blackmail reminded me of when Robin Williams’ Man of the Year went back and forth from goofy satire to political thriller. The thought’s nice, but the story never finds the compromise to make every ingredient work together. All this business about underground cabals and spy cameras just doesn’t fit, and the film is frustratingly vauge on what vital information Eli may or may not know; you’re never sure what’s his failing mental faculties and what’s plot convenience. Despite some narrative hiccups, though, the cast alone is good enough to keep you glued to the proceedings. Pacino plays the increasingly lost Eli with surprising restraint, Kim Basinger is solid as the reminder of the life Eli could’ve had and still has a chance to have, and O’Neal, Bill Nunn, and Richard Schiff fill the roles of those plotting to use the poor guy’s confusion to their advantage.

In Jerry Maguire, Jay Mohr tells Tom Cruise, “It’s not show friends; it’s show business.” That pretty much says it all about People I Know, a film that’s all the more somber because its lead character can’t tell the difference anymore. A good handshake and a couple of drinks may have forged friendships once, but Eli’s long since become blind to the sort of danger he puts himself in over the course of the picture. It’s no groundbreaking glitterati expose or savage satire a la The Player, but People I Know is no slouch in telling its sad story about how few and far between real pals are in showbiz.