by Raj Ranade
I'm Still Here opens today at the Kentucky Theatre
It was revealed on Thursday that Joaquin Phoenix's 2009 career meltdown, which climaxed in an infamous non-interview with David Letterman, was in fact an example of performance art from an extraordinarily dedicated actor. The confession came from Casey Affleck, director of the "documentary" that details Phoenix's "fall", I'm Still Here, which opened today at the Kentucky Theatre. Affleck was shocked that so few critics had seen the film for the satire that it is, and that so many were instead outraged over the supposed exploitation of a severely damaged man. Given the sheer absurdity of Phoenix's arc - from Oscar-nominated movie star with appropriately dapper looks to flabby, aspiring rap star with a survivalist beard - the question of how anyone, let alone film critics as estimable as Roger Ebert, fell for this stunt inevitably arises.
The answer has everything to do with Mr. Phoenix's considerable talent. Where most leading men guard their images by restraining themselves from complete vulnerability as actors, Phoenix's best performances, as a drug-addled Johnny Cash in Walk the Line or as a bipolar depressive in a love triangle in the vastly underrated Two Lovers, go to places so raw and dark that they hurt to watch. "Reputation be damned," the emotional nadirs of those performances seem to scream, and as radical as his newest stunt may be, it's clearly just an extension of that ethos.
Even with the foreknowledge of the film's phoniness, every moment of Phoenix's work in "I'm Still Here" rings eerily, terrifyingly true. This is no small feat, considering that much of the film is composed of Phoenix cackling maniacally while snorting lines of powder, earnestly composing dreadful hip-hop records, and barking obnoxious career advice at his personal assistants during his own personal low point. Even more impressive is the fact that the tragedy plays as convincingly as the (sick) comedy. The manic ramblings of "J.P." at the beginning of his journey shift towards curt, slurred whispers as the realization of his dream's ridiculousness sets in, and the film gains some of the weight of true tragedy.
All of this adds up to an unprecedented portrayal of self-destructive celebrity self-absorption, but the film's satirical sword cuts both ways. Entertainment media is cleverly skewered here through split-screens showing the unending repetitiveness of Phoenix's past promotional tours, showing that the elaborate construction of Brangelina-esque celebrity personas is merely a mirror image of Phoenix's slash-and-burn method. But it's the barbed look at Hollywood insider insincerity that garners most of the film's laughs - Edward James Olmos, as one of the few people who tries to help Joaquin, ends up delivering a monologue more intended for self-aggrandizement in front of the cameras than for any human being, while Diddy, who involuntarily cringes every time he hears Phoenix play one of his songs, is clearly intent on bilking as much out of Phoenix as possible (after offering him a promising script, on the other hand, Ben Stiller receives only a blanket condemnation of his entire body of work from Phoenix).
Affleck has collected lots of valuable, incisive footage - video that gets at the fraudulence that permeates every aspect of the entertainment industry. So why isn't his movie better? Make no mistake, fascinating though it may be, I'm Still Here is crudely shot, needlessly prolonged, sloppily edited, and frequently revolting. Far too often, Affleck is more interested in highlighting "Jackass" level hijinx than he is in making cogent insights - he has very little of Big Brother Ben's assurance and rigorous attention to structure as a director, and the result is a shapeless blob of a film randomly studded with riveting details.
But even if it takes more work than it should to pull meaning from this film, the rewards for doing so are rich. There was much discussion about whether Phoenix's career could sustain a blow of this fake-meltdown magnitude. If the admission of the film's fiction nature takes some of the fun out of discussing the movie, it certainly does ensure that Phoenix's talent is recognized - offers for parts have already begun to roll in, reportedly. He may have undergone a self-immolation, but it doesn't seem like any problem rising from the ashes, much like - well, you know.
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