Director Dan Algrant and writer Jon Robin Baitz’s gruelling odyssey into the mind of a New York publicist certainly gets under our skin with its vivid characters and situations, even if it is somewhat overpowering. Eli Wurman (Al Pacino, firing on all cylinders) has been around forever, but he has never seen anything like the next 24 hours as he premieres a dodgy play, bails out a strung-out starlet (Tea Leoni), soothes the ego of his biggest movie star client (Ryan O’Neal), bosses his assistant (Webber) around, visits his prescription-happy doctor (Robert Klein), tries to bring two community leaders (Richard Schiff and Bill Nunn) together for a charity event, and finds moments of humanity with his brother’s widow (Kim Basinger). And even in his ragged state he somehow keeps all the balls in the air. Just.
This is a pure Pacino tour-de-force, as he shows us Eli on the edge of success and oblivion, teetering over the brink and yet able to draw on deep resources of intellect and resilience that no one quite realizes he has. It’s a meaty performance, and we never get tired of watching him for a second. Meanwhile, the people around him are just as interesting: Basinger shines in a rare intelligent role; Leoni is energetic and rather frightening; and as the three power-mad goers, O’Neal, Schiff and Nunn are terrifically entertaining, especially when they get together at the end.
While the film is perhaps a bit too talky, it’s so fiendishly insightful that it keeps us hooked–it uses desperation as black comedy to make a sharp jab as New York’s power elite. The only complaint is that the plot ultimately tries to take over the character drama with twists, turns and some rather pointed preachiness. But at least it’s fiercely smart about it. And Algrant’s final shot is gorgeous.