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Case Number 05185: Small Claims Court

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People I Know

Miramax // 2003 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // September 15th, 2004

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All Rise...

Most of the people Judge Patrick Bromley knows wouldn't like this tired excuse for an Al Pacino film any better than he did.

The Charge

He thought he'd seen it all…until the night he saw too much.

The Case

At this point in his career—and this is just my opinion (which is all I really have to offer anyway)—Al Pacino (Sea of Love) seems to be coasting on his reputation. Once one of the most dynamic actors working in film (see his performances in Dog Day Afternoon and, of course, The Godfather for proof), these days it feels like Pacino works only in one of two gears: he's either the wide-eyed, barkingly over-the-top scenery chewer of The Devil's Advocate and Heat, or the disparate and downtrodden sad-sack of Donnie Brasco. Like the current output of his '70s equal/rival, Robert De Niro, Pacino seems to be phoning it in these days—though I'm the first to admit that even a phoned-in performance by Al Pacino is going to be better than a lot of actors working on all cylinders. I'm not suggesting that his current work is without any merit, just lamenting the fact that most of the freshness and inventiveness—not the skill—he once displayed has all but disappeared (and to those who would suggest those qualities are impossible to retain over such an extended career, I give you Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums).

New York-based publicist Eli Wurman (Pacino) has reached the end of his rope. His career has hit a dead end, leaving him with playboy-actor Cary Launer (Ryan O'Neal, Zero Effect) as his only remaining client. While trying to organize a benefit with a guest list comprised of New York's social and political elite, he's also juggling a visit from his sister-in-law (Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential), a new bomb of a play opening on Broadway, and a recently diagnosed serious illness. At the same time, Cary has asked Eli to watch over his newest girlfriend, the spoiled and drugged-out model-actress Jill Hopper (Téa Leoni, Flirting With Disaster). As Jill leads Eli on an all-night, controlled-substance-induced odyssey, he finds himself spiraling even further downward into the dark side of the city—one that contains more secrets, lies, and murder.

People I Know has Pacino in full Lefty-in-Donnie Brasco mode; he's all hangdog expression and shuffling feet, this time adding a hint of a southern accent (and not a very consistent one at that) for that added layer of once-upon-a-time / fish-out-of-water depth. The character doesn't work as well as the one in Donnie Brasco, though that may be the fault of the screenplay more than Pacino's performance. Lefty was an unchangeable dinosaur; a man doomed by his own personal code—a tragic figure. Eli, on the other hand, is more a victim of his own excesses, seeking redemption for a life squandered. We don't empathize with him in the same way, because while we respect the effort, we do not respect the man. It makes all the difference.

The idea here seems to be to create a real "New York" movie—to capture the city's lifeforce, its social scene, its political makeup. Well, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York already did that—despite the fact that it took place over a hundred years ago, its view of New York still feels more insightful, original, and relevant than anything found here. As long as Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee are still making movies, it's pretty tough to find new things to state cinematically about the Big Apple. There are moments of People I Know that almost play as satire on life in NY, but even those are rendered ineffective by the unshakeable feeling that they happened by accident. The movie would much rather be a kind of operatic tragedy about a man who's morally adrift, trying to find his way back to shore. Mmm-hmm. Been there. Seen that.

Just when the movie has pretty much lost your interest completely, a dead body shows up! Why? Well, who knows? 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 Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (a far better New York movie), complete with comedian-turned-actor Robert Klein in the director-turned-actor Sydney Pollack's role. It's the wrong direction to go, and gives one the feeling that everyone lost their nerve—they weren't confident enough as storytellers to allow the film to progress logically or work as a character study. Maybe they recognized that the character of Eli wasn't quite strong enough to carry a film by himself, and instead decided to saddle him with a clichéd Hollywood "suspense" scenario. Either way, the plot turn topples a film that's already on shaky ground, and it never quite recovers. The movie continues to stumble even beyond its all-too-predictable ending: It closes with a final shot that's self-consciously pretentious and ultimately rings hollow, as if the boldness of the camera move alone should lend it weight or meaning.

Miramax delivers People I Know in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that's not one of their best efforts; the image is often too dark and suffers from some edge enhancement haloing. The 5.1 Dolby digital soundtrack has few demands placed upon it—it really only needs to handle Pacino's mumbling, which it does well enough. There are two deleted scenes featuring the World Trade Center (cut for obvious reasons), playable with optional commentary. There is also a feature-length commentary track by director Dan Algrant, who's joined by someone referred to as a "friend of the film," whatever that means (at least in Kevin Smith's circle, they titled that position "historian"). The talk is pretty dull and can be slow going at times, though it is interesting to hear Algrant point out the film's many shortcomings as if he meant them intentionally.

Skip out on People I Know—it doesn't work as suspense, as satire, or even as a character study. Al Pacino ought to step up his game, or he'll soon be appearing alongside De Niro and Hoffman as Ben Stiller's uncle or something.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 81

Perp Profile

Studio: Miramax
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Director's Commentary Track
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary


• IMDb

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