Pacino's role is washed up, but he's not

Al Pacino hasn't been on a roll lately.

He's a good actor, and when a solid opportunity like last year's moody thriller "Insomnia" comes along, he rises nicely to the occasion.

But for the past few seasons he's been mostly stuck in junk such as "Simone" and "The Recruit," squandering the artistic capital he earned with "The Insider" and "Any Given Sunday" in the late 1990s. His starmaking performances in the "Godfather" movies seem like products of a vanished era.

All of which is relevant to Mr. Pacino's latest film. His performance in "People I Know" is the best thing he's done in ages, and while the main reason is his still-robust acting talent, his career history also contributes to the strength of his characterization here.

Like the strung-out publicity man he plays, Pacino has been on the entertainment scene a very long while, and at times - including recent times - he's looked like an incipient has-been. But he's not ready to roll over yet, and when the time does arrive for his final exit, you know he'll try to make it with a satisfying bang.

The story woven around Pacino's new character, public-relations man Eli Wurman, is more mysterious than you might expect.

At first it seems to be a show-business morality tale, with the protagonist trying to revitalize his career by organizing a fundraiser for a worthy cause. This necessitates courting a high-profile movie star by helping him out of a romantic dilemma that could cripple his political ambitions.

The stakes grow drastically higher when a dreadful crime transpires almost under Eli's nose, unveiling a network of sinister activities. The rest of the movie revolves around his efforts to pull off his great project in the midst of enigmatic forces.

Imagine mixing "The Sweet Smell of Success" with "Eyes Wide Shut," plus a dash of the recent "ivans xtc" for extra spice, and you'll have an idea of what this offbeat fable is like. Pacino is the dynamo that drives it, giving a relentlessly imaginative performance that draws on all the professional expertise and personal experience he's gathered in a lifetime of screen and stage work.

More surprising yet is the supporting cast. It's headed by Ryan O'Neal, who's having even more of a comeback than Pacino this year, via his fine work here and in "Malibu's Most Wanted," where he also plays a rich guy with political stars in his eyes. Right behind him are Kim Basinger as Eli's confidante, Robert Klein as his befuddled physician, and Bill Nunn as an African-American leader who's no more idealistic than the other egomaniacs in the plot.

At some moments, "People I Know" becomes as murky as the conspiracy it portrays, and it's too willfully peculiar for its box-office prospects to be very strong.

It's a refreshing change from the business-as-usual that's dominating most of this season's fare, though, and Pacino's performance alone makes it a must-see for admirers of creative film acting.

Rated R; contains violence, sex, and drugs.

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