Dir: Daniel Algrant. USA. 2001. 100mins.
Anyone who wants to see Al Pacino in his one of his most impressive roles since Scent Of A Woman is going to have to get on a plane to Rome, at least for the time being. A combination of commercial bad timing and self-regulatory censorship has meant that Miramax still has no US release scheduled for this tight, dark, compelling political drama, over a year after it was wrapped and ready. People I Know has emerged in Italy, however, where it took $682,000 from 274 screens in its first weekend for a screen average of $2,489. Sophisticated urban markets in Europe and elsewhere look to be its best hope, at least until the US comes out of its don't-rock-the-boat coma.
The whiff of censorship could even turn into a box-office boost if distributors take the bull by the horns and sell this as the film that is too hot for America to handle, a strategy which CDI in Italy has so far failed to capitalise on.
Daniel Algrant (Sex And The City) examines the New York of corrupt political cabals, and is openly critical of an unnamed, right-wing mayor who, Pacino's character complains, is one of those responsible for turning the town into a 'police state' in which 'a lot of people... have come to fear us and hate us'.
One can see, as with The Quiet American and Buffalo Soldiers, Miramax's dilemma: in the present climate of grin-and-bear-it solidarity, the film's bad-ass attitude to US politics means that it is going to be a difficult prospect on home ground, even more than a year after September 11.
In less troubled times, Al Pacino's performance as a tired, jaded, pill-popping New York publicist and theatrical agent struggling to hold onto the only thing that reminds him he is human - his militant past as a civil liberties campaigner - would be on the fast track to an Oscar awards campaign.
The action takes place over 24 hours in a New York that has a nicely dark, grainy, 1970s feel to it - a feel reinforced by the cool urban jazz soundtrack. The audience first see Ely Wurman - who hails from Georgia - at the Broadway opening of a play he's representing: a no-hoper, like many of his recent briefs. Soon he's drafted in to mop up a mess left behind by Carry Launer (O'Neal), the only celebrity actor who has stayed faithful to him. Carry sends Ely to bail out a dazed and confused supermodel girlfriend (Leoni), who drags the publicist off to an exclusive Wall Street opium party, where he is surprised to recognise some really heavyweight movers and shakers.
Things spiral, as they say: Ely slips into a twilight zone of growing menace, compounded by lack of sleep and a cocktail of prescription drugs. The only still point in his physical and moral loss of control is represented by Victoria (Basinger), his dead brother's wife, who has come up from Georgia to get Ely out of the New York jungle and tempt him back to the old country. Unfortunately, she's too late.
The dialogue is sharp, edgy, and occasionally hilarious (Ely, looking around the supermodel's hotel boudoir: 'This is not a room - it's a vagina'). Pacino's magnetic performance as a good guy in a bad world who is too tired even to emote is given strong support by Leoni, O'Neal, Basinger and Richard Schiff (from the West Wing) as a Machiavellian New York Jewish leader.
Just occasionally, the insider's view is taken so far that certain offhand references, or the faces of certain NY society figures playing themselves, are lost on those of us from outside the Big Apple. But this minor distraction is also one of the things that gives the film its air of authority. Pacino fans, and all those who care about cinema, should chase this one around the world.
Prod co: Myriad Pictures, South Fork Pictures Production, Chal Productions, GreeneStreet Films
It dist: CDI
Int'l sales: Myriad Pictures
Exec prods: Robert Redford, Kirk D'Amico, Philip von Alfenveben
Prods: Michael Nozick, Leslie Urdang, Karen Tenkhoff
Scr: Jon Robin Baitz
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Prod des: Michael Shaw
Ed: Suzy Elmiger
Music: Terence Blanchard
Main cast: Al Pacino, Kim Basinger, Tea Leoni, Greg Stebner, Richard Schiff, Ryan O'Neal