Looking as if he hasn't slept since Insomnia (actually filmed later) and emitting the scent of a woebegone, Al Pacino plods hangdoggedly through People I Know till he finally drops--dead, literally. Some may think the ending to this nasty little wallow in New York nightlife is abrupt and arbitrary, but in truth it makes sense (and wry irony) that the bedraggled publicist Pacino plays to a fare-the-well would be so absorbed in his own self-made hallucination, he'd be oblivious to signs of his own demise. It's a nice final flourish, and photographer Peter Deming seconds that motion with a closing shot of the Manhattan skyline turned upside-down that's appropriate for a profession fueled on helium, chutzpah and pharmaceuticals.

Sweet Smell of Success, it ain't--but it's close enough for discomfort. Pacino's character, Eli Wurman, is a Sidney Falco who's stayed too long at the fair--"the boy with the ice cream face," as someone called Tony Curtis then, now turned to Mt. Rushmore rock. If you can read between the frames, you'll find a bona fide p.r. wizard in Wurman. Pacino and/or screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz have appropriated the persona of just such a gent, a transplanted Georgia Jew who used to play it like a visible blur at his own lavish parties.

The smart, tart script follows Wurman on his ever-widening, ever-dizzying rounds--from the opening night of a bummer play to a little elite elbow-rubbing at Joe Allen's, to some swank dens of iniquity. Wurman's prime mover is a high-minded fund-raiser designed to unite two rival political figures--one black (Bill Nunn), one Jewish (Richard Schiff)--if only for a fleeting photo op. To get this to happen, he has promised that they'll be introduced by his number-one (and only, it seems) client, an Oscar-winning movie star who has lost his twinkle and shine (played with painful plausibility by Ryan O'Neal, yet!).

Of course, the movie star comes with a price tag as well: His momentary main squeeze, a TV starlet with a con of her own (Ta Leoni, showing fangs), needs to be sprung from jail and ushered out of town, and Wurman must spring for his supper. But first the starlet visits a ritzy orgy-in-progress, snaps some incriminating pictures of celebrities-in-heat and gets herself killed while Wurman watches in a pill-induced stupor in her bathtub.

Even in synopsis, you can see what's wrong with this picture: the murder. It's unconvincing melodrama grafted onto a rather realistically built backdrop, and in an odd way it is never really addressed. It seems to come at you through a drug-fumed fog.

Another false note is struck by the goodie-two-shoes Kim Basinger plays, Wurman's widowed sister-in-law who has come to rescue him from his destructive lifestyle. Three guesses on how successful she is. The movie is at its best when it does a deep dive into the unsavory underbelly of celebrity. Director Dan Algrant keeps the proceedings moving, but he can't disguise the fact that it is moving in circles that go nowhere. Baitz has salt-and-peppered the picture with some raunchy lines (Pacino on entering a bordello-red hotel suite: "This isn't a room. It's a vagina."). A plot would have been nice.

As it now stands (rather shakily), People I Know is a character-study-in-constant-motion, with a little murder on the side--and because that character is played by Pacino, it often fascinates. The actor has learned how to grow old on-camera--by careering from one burned-out case to another. He is surrounded every faltering step by a first-class cast of New York actors. The best of these include Robert Klein as Wurman's concerned physician, Mark Webber as his whipping-boy assistant, and Lisa Emery as a former employee who wars with him over the same gala site. It is interesting to note that Emery's role is based on a publicist who wound up partnered with, God help us, the notorious Lizzie Grubman, whose arrogance got into overdrive and produced prison time.

--Harry Haun