Sweet Smell of Cosmopolis

Honey, get me a Quaalude: Kim Basinger and Al Pacino in 'People I Know'
Miramax Films

Eli Wurman (Al Pacino) is tired. You can feel it in his entrance, as Pacino strides into the scene hair-first. What a wondrous creation this aureole is! Poofing up like the crest of a newborn chick, Eli's hairdo must have really been something in 1982--so special, in fact, that he hasn't changed it since. It's the one thing in Eli's figure that suggests the electricity of being alive; the rest is a frightening, craggy, oatmeal mass of gray. And as Eli shuffles himself from one place to another, we recognize the by-the-book energy of a flea-bitten press-agent hack, a man who lives to be on the phone. Eli's undoubtedly unpaid assistant simply has to understand this morning that there are very important people--Regis and his lovely wife, to be precise--who must be made to call back.

People I Know, one of those enemy-combatant movies that Attorney General Harvey Weinstein has held in solitary for years without the benefit of trial (and which has now been relegated to cablecast on Cinemax throughout November), is not likely to be embraced by a wide audience. But if you're susceptible to its archaic subgenre, it's a queerly thrilling experience. Those few critics who've seen it have likened it unfavorably to Sweet Smell of Success, Clifford Odets's masterly portrait of an unscrupulous press agent on the make. But it's actually much closer in tone to Sidney Lumet's two forgotten, succulently acrid New York Jewish comedies, Bye Bye Braverman (1968) and Just Tell Me What You Want (1979). The screenwriter, a brilliant young playwright named Jon Robin Baitz, has a chilling ear for B-minus-list showbiz that rings true, the way a battle scene in a Sam Fuller picture tells you that the director really did go to war. And the situation of the movie--a day in the death of this downbound publicist, nailing himself to the cross of his good intentions--juices Pacino to deliver his strongest performance since Scarface.

As the film begins, Eli wakes up fucked--karmically hexed, one suspects, for decades of bad faith. His big objective is to assemble a benefit for a group of young Nigerian men being detained by New York's mayor (i.e., Giuliani--in this movie's ambiguous cosmos). This means pulling together a Sharpton-like Harlem demagogue (Bill Nunn) and a Bloomberg-like liberal zillionaire (Richard Schiff). It also means luring his one big client: Cary Launer (Ryan O'Neal), a Warren Beatty-esque movie star with extremely decadent predilections and an eye on Hillary's Senate seat. The calamity is that Cary has a mess for Eli to fix: a coked-up starlet ( Téa Leoni) whom he wants Eli to pick up and put on an airplane. Except that Eli never gets her on an airplane; instead, the two wind up in an opium den and a bisexual group-grope in a skyscraper blocks away from Ground Zero. Before he knows what hit him, Eli wakes up in a hotel bathtub, with a very dead starlet facedown on the bed.

At this point, you expect that all the fun Baitz is taking in limning a soon-to-be-gone New York will dissolve into a conventional car chase-oriented sort of "thriller." That never happens. (And neither, apparently, will the film's theatrical release.) Instead, Baitz and director Dan Algrant paint a picture of a dying culture: Jewish, gay, learned, liberal, loyal, and about to melt into air. And Pacino's chicken-haired flack is this movie's version of Burt Lancaster's Leopard--or Tennessee Williams (the man, not his characters). In a dazzling sequence that would make Paddy Chayefsky green with envy, Pacino delivers an anguished, confessional, operating-table monologue while getting his penis dilated by Paulina Porizkova's nurse. ("I left Harvard Law for Hollywood 'cause I wanted to suck cock!" Eli cries.) The overripe theatricality that has marred so many of the latter-day Pacino performances finds perfect expression in Eli's old-school, theatricalized effeminacy. It surely ranks as an all-time great Pacino moment when Eli dashes into a roomful of rich, concerned liberal women who tell him they must get up to Harlem; without missing a beat, Eli, his back to us, laments, "Honey, we all got to get to Harlem."

This movie certainly hasn't earned points for being unapologetically old-fashioned. I'd say there's a link between the violent reaction toward Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis and the critical dislike of People I Know: Both are about the smelly, fallible old New York giving way to a scarier, transcendent new New York. In DeLillo, the new New York is the world of the bodiless: the digital readout of francs and yen, the multicolored plasma-screen records of weather patterns and crop growths, the trance-beat of the future. In People, it's the triumph of an L.A.-bred culture represented by two caricatured doubles: the sinister, savvy Launer, his claws on young women and power; and David Fielding (Ramsey Faragallah), the square-jawed young "model-actor" who could be the next Launer and who chases after Eli with an expression of blankest sincerity. I won't give it away, but People ends with Eli reaching an apotheosis that seems to be Baitz doffing his hat to The King of Comedy--an even darker ending in which Eli goes to heaven on TV.

Part of the hostility toward People I Know and Cosmopolis stems from the fact that we seem to want to indulge in sentimental fantasy about New York, past and present. (Spike Lee's post-9/11 elegy, the dreadful 25th Hour, at least got a critical pass for its show of spilled tears.) No one seems to want to think that New York, even for a moment, was Eli Wurman's town. The futuristic, acquisitive fantasies of the go-go '90s is what most of us want to hold on to as our image of New York. People I Know is deliberately out of fashion, like a stack of late-'70s New York magazines about Laetrile and Quaaludes. For some small minority of us, that makes it the kind of movie we want to clutch near and dear to our hearts.

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