Is he putting us on? Maybe.
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 10, 2010
If you're looking for an answer to the question of whether Joaquin Phoenix's "retirement" from acting and abortive second career as a rapper are, as some have claimed, all part of an elaborate hoax, you won't find it by reading this review. You won't find it by watching the movie "I'm Still Here" either. The fascinating, frustrating new documentary -- by actor Casey Affleck, who is married to Phoenix's sister Summer and who seems to have been granted unfettered, round-the-clock access -- purports to chart Phoenix's bizarre career suicide since announcing he was quitting movies after his 2008 art-house film "Two Lovers."
But the movie is as damnably perplexing as the subject himself.
Much of it feels like watching a news cameraman take pictures of someone who has just poured gasoline on himself and is about to light a match. (No, make that someone who has already lit the match and has just dropped it into his lap.) You'll find yourself wondering one thing, over and over, as Phoenix snorts coke off the breast of a naked hooker; weeps openly; dives into an audience to assault a heckler during a rap performance and then vomits; and consistently berates his assistants so badly that one of them defecates on his face while he's sleeping. It's this: Why doesn't Affleck put the camera down and do something? Why doesn't Phoenix's manager -- or any of his many gofers and lackeys -- say anything?
Yes, it's that horrifying. Maybe the answer lies in our reluctance to protect famous people from themselves. When asked why he facilitates some embarrassing behavior, Phoenix's assistant Larry replies, "If he wants to do something, you do it." Welcome to the parade of enablers.
Then come the film's closing credits, which include a "cast" list crediting such performers as Affleck's father, Tim, in the role of Phoenix's father. Which suddenly makes the whole thing seem like the worst episode of "Jackass" ever.
Have we all been punked? Well, maybe.
If the whole movie is an act, it's an Oscar-worthy one. Both Phoenix and Affleck are prominently credited as the film's writers. But among the many celebrities who appear on camera -- Ben Stiller, for example, pitching a role in "Greenberg"; Sean "Diddy" Combs, giving Phoenix a painful rap critique; and Edward James Olmos, waxing philosophical over a drop of water -- all appear genuinely mortified and/or confused by Phoenix, who becomes increasingly incoherent, disheveled, overweight, abusive and paranoid as the film goes on.
This isn't "Borat," however. If Phoenix is making fun of something -- the cult of celebrity, perhaps? -- it isn't clear what. And if he's sticking a thumb in Hollywood's eye, why are we the ones wincing?
But if the film is real (and that's a big if), it depicts a tragedy in the making. Which raises a couple of additional questions: What possible reason would Affleck have for recording his brother-in-law's seeming descent into madness, except as a kind of intervention, holding up a mirror to him as if to say, "Look at the monster you've become." And what possible reason would Phoenix have to agree to be filmed? As delusional and drug-addled as he seems, it's hard to imagine anyone who has worked in movies not being able to see what a train wreck a film like this would be. At one point, Phoenix is shown lamenting his dwindling finances. At another (immediately following his infamous, mumbling appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman"), he jumps out of the limo carrying him from the show to cry on the side of the road.
A far more likely explanation is that "I'm Still Here" is some strange blend of fact and fiction, moments that are partly stolen and partly staged, with nothing to distinguish the two.
That's not especially helpful as a critique. But it does mean that there's a bit more artifice here than meets the eye. Whether that artifice rises to the level of art or remains a weirdly voyeuristic therapy session is anyone's guess. In either case, it's an acutely uncomfortable experience.
Contains prodigious obscenity, nudity and drug use and fistfights.