Life’s a Pitch

Publicity Hound: In People I Know, Al Pacino plays a publicist, Kim Basinger his concerned sister-in-law.Photo: Miramax Films

If you’re a connoisseur of Al Pacino at his most flagrant, look no further than People I Know. Even when measured against the high standards of ham set by him in recent films like The Recruit and Simone, it’s quite a display.

He plays Eli Wurman, a once-legendary New York publicist who is down to his last star client, Cary Launer (Ryan O’Neal), a smarmy Hollywood icon who is considering a run for the Senate. Launer asks Eli as a favor to quietly bail out a starlet (Téa Leoni) he’s been screwing; her release leads Eli into a sex-and-drugs netherworld of political conspiracy and murder that, at times, resembles the hoarier passages from Eyes Wide Shut. Throughout it all, Eli is trying to regain some of his past glory by arranging an A-list benefit for a group of Nigerians who have been unjustly jailed by the mayor after being rounded up by the INS. Just another day in the life of a Manhattan flack.

You can see why Pacino bit into this role: It’s florid and seedy and princely—all at once. The screenplay is by the playwright Jon Robin Baitz, and his dialogue is often hortatory in ways that would probably seem over-the-top even onstage. This corrupt New York showbiz-and-politics milieu often brings out a writer’s bombast, but sometimes it’s that very quality that makes such movies so much fun. Sweet Smell of Success, to name the greatest entry in the I-love-this-dirty-town genre, had dialogue by Clifford Odets that was as pungent and stylized as lingo has ever been onscreen. Baitz isn’t nearly on Odets’s level, but at least he’s on the right track. Trashy and lurid as this movie is, it’s certainly not boring, and it keeps its star in hog heaven throughout.

The main reason you can put up with Pacino’s grandstanding in a way you never would with most other actors is because there’s a genuine love of performing behind it. Most scenery-chompers are divas interested only in their own holy radiance; Pacino, no matter how lit up he is, still tries to create a character with a rich psychology. In early performances like the first two Godfather films, his energies were mostly implosive—it’s worth remembering that Pacino could be the subtlest of actors. He was capable of explosiveness too, as in Dog Day Afternoon; but what made that performance so original was the way he somehow managed to portray a rabble-rousing ranter and still leave the impression that we were watching a man who was stricken, muted, closed off. Pacino can find the shadings in every hue.

In People I Know, which was directed by Dan Algrant, Eli Wurman sees himself as a relic of the good old days when publicists stood for something besides hoopla. (When was that, exactly?) He cherishes his memories of Kennedy-era civil-rights activism and now longs for a way out of his current world. “I just want to leave the party,” he says to his adoring sister-in-law (Kim Basinger). Her offer to rescue him by taking him back to her farm in Virginia has a fairy-tale allure—i.e., you know it’s never going to happen. Eli is last seen slumped in his dark living room while Regis Philbin sings his praises on TV. I’m not sure if this is intended as the best send-off in the world or the worst.

None of this sob-story stuff is remotely believable, but as an expression of a prevailing strain of New York showbiz sentimentality, it’s gruesomely accurate. For the community it represents, it’s a double whammy: You get to celebrate both the saint that you were and the corrupt shithead you’ve become.

Am I the only one who can’t figure out the cons in all these perfect-con movies we’ve been getting lately? The Good Thief was highly entertaining, but, like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven before it, you had to accept its switcheroos on faith, since little in the movie made a lick of sense. Confidence, which was directed by James Foley from a script by Doug Jung, is another opus of implausibility in which a small-time hustler, Jake Vig (Edward Burns), gets a shot at paying back a big-time L.A. hood, “The King” (Dustin Hoffman, in a high-style cameo), by pulling off the biggest scam of his career. By the end of the film, everybody has been triple- and quadruple- and even quintuple-crossed, but the characters still standing all seem to be very pleased with themselves for a job well done. If only we could figure out what the job was exactly. Lucidity isn’t everything in a thriller—if it was, The Big Sleep would be one of the worst films ever made instead of one of the most entertaining. But the new con-game movie cycle is, in itself, a con—on the audience. Plot-wise, these movies don’t add up, and yet we’re supposed to think they do, in order to enjoy ourselves. I don’t want to be too hard on Confidence, which at least has a talented and hardworking cast that also includes Rachel Weisz, Paul Giamatti, and Andy Garcia. But surely there is something wrong with a movie that is supposed to make you go Wow! yet instead provokes a great big Huh?

Matt Dillon’s feature directorial debut City of Ghosts, co-written by Dillon and Barry Gifford, is great on atmosphere and less good on everything else. That’s not entirely a knock. Plenty of first-time directors, especially actor-directors, elicit fine performances from their casts but seem clueless when it comes to visually evoking a mood or locale. Dillon has the advantage of setting most of his movie in seedy, modern Phnom Penh—the locations are real—and he creates a very Graham Greene–ish air of torpor and rot. Dillon himself stars as an insurance-company swindler who flees to Cambodia to hook up with his business manager and mentor (James Caan). There he gets drawn into a bigger swindle using the insurance money to set up a seaside casino. I realize it’s de rigueur for these movies to concern themselves with issues of redemption. But not everyone can be Graham Greene, or Joseph Conrad. City of Ghosts is least compelling when it tries to inflate all that sweaty-nasty atmosphere with philosophy. Sometimes decadence is best served without any side dish.

People I Know
Directed by Dan Algrant; starring Al Pacino and Ryan O’Neal.

Directed by James Foley; starring Edward Burns and Rachel Weisz.

City of Ghosts
Directed by Matt Dillon; starring Dillon and James Caan.

Life’s a Pitch