The shadow of Sweet Smell Of Success hangs heavy over People I Know, a muddled drama that has the misfortune of lumbering in the footsteps of Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 masterpiece. Where Mackendrick's tour de force was a show-business exposé on speedall manic energy and jazzy, pounding rhythmsPeople I Know is a drama on downers: It's clammy, meandering, and paranoid.
In yet another grandstanding, vaguely embarrassing star turn, Al Pacino plays an over-the-hill publicist striving desperately to line up big-name guests for a liberal benefit he hopes will salvage what remains of his tattered, weary soul. His uphill battle is further hampered by the inopportune arrival of Téa Leoni, the doped-up, promiscuous starlet lover of Pacino's biggest client (Ryan O'Neal), a faded pretty-boy with political aspirations. Through a haze of pills, Pacino strives to keep Leoni from self-destructing on his watch; meanwhile, he's also saddled with a flashy black reverend with a reputation for anti-Semitism (Bill Nunn), a shadowy cartel of sinister Jewish businessmen led by Richard Schiff, and his own wandering Southern accent, which intermittently makes him sound like a Tennessee Williams heroine. A miscast Kim Basinger plays Pacino's semi-love-interest and last best hope for happiness, but their scenes together misfire, due to a lack of sparks and the fact that both of them seem to be playing wounded Southern belles. (O'Neal is similarly miscast, as both an Oscar-winner and a potential senator.) Executive producer Robert Redford would have brought a much more resonant set of iconic baggage to the underwritten role, though it's easy to see why he didn't favor the film with one of his increasingly rare performances.
For a show-business movie, People I Know also has a fatally fuzzy grasp on pop culture. When Pacino's longsuffering assistant says he wants to return to his hometown because, among other things, he misses grunge, it raises the question of whether he wishes to return not only to Seattle, but also to 1992. People I Know wants to taste the sweet smell of success, but it has to settle for the aroma of failure that follows its luckless protagonist like a repellent aftershave.