Judge Daryl Loomis has no trouble convincing people he's a lazy, good-for-nothing slob.
Our review of I'm Still Here (Blu-ray), published November 30th, 2010, is also available.
The lost years of Joaquin Phoenix
Ethically dubious as they often are, I love a good hoax, but in our cynical media world where everything celebrities do exists online, I didn't think a really good con could be pulled today. Here we are, though, with Joaquin Phoenix having duped much of the entertainment industry into believing the absurd notion that he was going to become a rapper. Whether particular individuals believed it at the time is irrelevant; the mere fact that they were able to make this happen is fantastic. Is I'm Still Here a display of pure narcissism, or a mirror reflecting our obsession with celebrity culture? More importantly, does the film work as more than a gimmick?
Facts of the Case
Joaquin Phoenix stunned the media when, chunky, disheveled, and dazed, he announced to Extra's Jerry Penacoli that he was retiring from the acting game to start a career in hip-hop. Coming off an award-winning performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, could it be true? Over the course of the next few months, Phoenix's behavior became increasingly erratic and his musical forays were met with mockery, at best. Finally, after an infamous meltdown in front of a national audience with David Letterman's verbal axe handy to chop him down, people started becoming convinced that Phoenix had gone directly over the edge. Luckily, Phoenix's close friend and brother-in-law, Casey Affleck (The Killer Inside Me) was at bay with a camera, ready to capture every humiliating moment.
While I find the whole incident depicted here to be a fascinating piece of performance art and a good, harmless stunt, this is a review of a film and not a hoax. As a film, I'm Still Here is decidedly mixed. In addition to the concept, there are some thoroughly convincing performances, but the film wears very thin during its plus-hundred minute running time. I'm glad I saw what Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix have done, but I see little reason to revisit it.
Many suspected a hoax and Affleck finally revealed in an interview with the New York Times the nature of his stunt, but the film is played very straight. There are places where it becomes absurd enough to stretch the illusion, but they mostly succeeds at keeping it just this side of believable. Many had already pegged it as a hoax and, even if Affleck hadn't spilled the beans, many more would have guessed the same after seeing I'm Still Here. Pulling back the curtain killed the joke, of course, but it was the only thing to do if he expected any support for the film at all. As a documentary, this would have been a voyeuristic and wholly depressing look at the downward spiral of a once respected actor. Celebrity or not, this would have been tough to watch. At least as fiction, we can evaluate the film on some kind of normal level.
Phoenix's performance is outstanding. He plays a heightened version of himself, and nasty as that makes him, his transformation is complete. In much the same way as Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat, Phoenix is constantly in character and there's no way to mistake him for anything but a complete scumbag. That's where the problem starts with the film, though. Convincing as Phoenix is, he is also supposed to be the film's protagonist, but seldom have we been asked to sympathize with a more disgusting character. If he showed any kind of growth or change during the story, there could have been something to hold onto. Instead, his failures make him bitter, repugnant, and even less likable. There's little point to rooting for his downfall, of course, because we already know it's a fix.
These same problems come through in every aspect of the film. Any of the allegedly shocking footage of Phoenix taking drugs, rolling with hookers, and abusing assistants ring false once we know it's a con, and the disgusting revenge taken on him amounts to the same. The celebrity cameos, including Mos-Def, Edward James Olmos, and Bruce Willis are convincing, but Sean Combs chastising Phoenix for not taking his alleged rap career seriously comes off as fairly silly given that Phoenix is, of course, not taking it seriously at all.
In the end, through all the deception, the question is whether the film works. How Casey Affleck captured the footage is admirable, but once we know that it's a mockumentary, there needs to be some kind of point beyond duping your friends and coworkers. I'm Still Here has little beyond an interesting concept and a strong performance; the project as a whole does not work.
For all the film's faults, Magnolia has released a solid DVD. The anamorphic image comes from mixed sources, so varies quite a bit. It's fine overall, though, with Affleck's footage looking like your average indie doc. The 5.1 surround mix has little going on except for a few bad musical performances, so there isn't much to appreciate. The extras on the disc are pretty good, though. They focus mainly on the concept and the reality of what happened, not so much on the film itself. Two audio commentaries start us off. The first features Casey Affleck by himself, and it's the more interesting of the two. He gets into pretty good detail about the genesis of the project and how they implemented their plan, pointing out where ringers were placed to get footage and facilitate action. He has a good handle on what he was trying to accomplish and doesn't shy away from the problems with the film. The second track with Affleck, Phoenix, and a whole slew of others is surprisingly quiet for a ten person commentary. They rehash much of the same material, with a few more jokes thrown around, but it's not essential. Around an hour of deleted scenes (all with commentary from Affleck) give us more of the same material that's in the film with nothing new to add. The two best extras, both audio-only interviews, close us out. The first, with Affleck, Phoenix, and Jerry Penacoli of Extra, who took the original scoop, is a friendly chat that very effusively rehashes much of the same information. The second, this time with former Entertainment Weekly reporter and current journalism professor Christine Spines, who reported the hoax leak. This is a more contentious piece, as her role in the situation would suggest. Affleck tried hard to get her to reveal her informant and her wounds from that are still apparent, as is his anger that it threatened to derail the project.
It took guts for Joaquin Phoenix to blow all his professional credibility for a stunt. His performance was good enough to convince more than a few people that he'd gone nuts and, for a fan of a good fake, the concept is great. The resulting movie, though, could have been a mirror to reflect the media's attitude toward celebrity, but there isn't enough substance for them to accomplish what they set out to do. I admire some of what happened in I'm Still Here, but I can't recommend the film with any real conviction.
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