Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: "I'm Still Here"

This film review is too late. Hours before I saw "I'm Still Here," director Casey Affleck admitted to the New York Times that it was all a hoax. Affleck called Joaquin Phoenix's "retirement" from acting to star in a mockumentary about the collapse of his life a bit of "gonzo filmmaking" after the style of Hunter S. Thompson, who blended journalism, fiction and pharmaceuticals.

There is plenty of all three in "I'm Still Here." It starts out as a raw documentary in late 2008, right after Phoenix abruptly announced he would make no more films, opting to become a hip-hop artist instead. He grows progressively shabbier, his hair and beard approaching caveman proportions, he snorts prodigious amounts of strange powders, his middle grows thick, and the sunglasses he wears constantly anywhere outside his house become swathed in progressive layers of tape meant to hold them together.

These humble wrappings cannot mask the disintegration behind them, nor can the revelation the whole thing was a sham repair the irreparable damage Phoenix has done to a once-promising career.

Here's why: "I'm Still Here" is a practical joke, and not a very good one, either in conception or execution. I'm still confused about why Affleck would make his revelation now, when the film was just expanding beyond a few cities. It seems he gave away the punch line before most people heard the set-up.

Affleck and Phoenix thought they were playing a gag on everyone else. At one point after his disastrous, mumbling, incoherent performance on the Dave Letterman show, Phoenix breaks down in tears: "Now I'm going to be a joke forever."

He would prove right, as a short time later Ben Stiller nailed Phoenix with a dead-on impersonation at the Academy Awards ceremony, which cemented the image in the public's mind. Having intentionally set up himself up as a punching bag for pop culture, Phoenix may find it hard to shake that persona.

Curiously, Stiller appears earlier in the documentary -- or mockumentary, I guess we should now call it -- to pitch Phoenix a role in his movie "Greenberg" (which was ultimately played by Rhys Ifans, brilliantly). This begs the question of whether Stiller was in on the joke.

In fact, once we know the film is a hoax, the only possible remaining entertainment value it has is in trying to guess which interactions are real and which are faux.

Certainly Phoenix, who comes across as a whining, colossally narcissistic brat, manages to fool a lot of people. He spends much of his time chasing around Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to convince him to produce his album. Combs, who is wary that he's being played, seems like the smartest person in the film.

I don't know much about rap music, but Phoenix is just terrible at it. He has no instinct for the rhythm and cadence of the lyrics he has (supposedly) written.

There's a lot of abuse directed at Antony and Larry, Phoenix's friends/assistants. No one who is really your friend accepts a paycheck for being one, but Phoenix apparently doesn't understand this. The film also contains a copious amount of frontal male nudity, and at one point Antony defecates on Phoenix while he's sleeping (or at least mimes doing so) in retaliation.

That could be an apt metaphor for the contempt Affleck and Phoenix are showing the audience with their grand, silly stunt. But the movie actually contains a better one: Attempting to flee the premiere of his "last" movie, "Two Lovers," Phoenix stands in a lonely stairwell in the bowels of the theater, vainly pushing on a door marked with huge letters, "Not an Exit."

Having faked his exit, Joaquin Phoenix may find people unmotivated to welcome him back in.

1.5 stars out of four

1 comment:

  1. as a few months later Ben Stiller nailed Arizona with a dead-on impersonation at the Academia Prizes wedding, which recorded the image in the public's mind. Having deliberately set up himself up as a kickboxing bag for popular lifestyle, Arizona may find it difficult to tremble that personality.