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I'm Still Here

Is Joaquin Phoenix's "lost year" real – or a big joke on us?

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I'm Still Here, a fly-on-the-wall documentary from actor-turned-director Casey Affleck, purports to show the "lost year" in actor Joaquin Phoenix's life. That year began in November 2008, when, at a tribute show for Paul Newman, Phoenix announced he was retiring from acting and taking up a new career as a rapper.

And Affleck is there, with plenty of access, however poorly filmed. (He is married to Phoenix's sister.) His cameras capture the retired thespian, now a bloated, bearded profane slob, as he indulges in all manner of bad behavior including: attacking fans, oversleeping, snorting coke off a hooker's titty, ignoring his manager's advice, raging at his assistants, driving without a seatbelt, vomiting, whining about his cushy life and refusing to read the script for Greenberg.

Yet these personal anguishes of a misunderstood "creative genius" fail to translate into art: Phoenix's rap-music sessions are painfully bad. Most of his rhymes, delivered in a wigga-style mumble, seem to be about how confining life as a successful actor/public figure is.

The high/low point of the "lost year" was, of course, Phoenix's loopy appearance on David Letterman, which is replayed about two-thirds into the film. Hilarious or tragic? By this point, viewers will have decided whether I'm Still Here is an elaborate staged prank or a voyeuristic document of an emotional meltdown.

I'm in the hoax camp, though I'm willing to split the difference: Being a self-deluded, manic asshole with a messy personal life and a committed prankster aren't mutually exclusive. I could also be totally wrong.

Others may see this as a pathetic warts-and-all portrait of a deeply troubled, rudderless young man trapped by fame's mirrors. Or they may see it as a "portrait" of such a person, a characterization of the tormented churlish artist we expect to see. (After all, Phoenix is an actor, and was recently seen playing this very role in Walk the Line.)

A number of aspects suggest this is more put-on than not. One of Phoenix's toadies is played by Antony Langdon, of the neo-glam band Spacehog, a fact that's weirdly obscured. (In fact, Langdon is among several on-camera figures credited as though they are actors, not "real people.") Cameras are conveniently present, and never seem to bother the mercurial Phoenix. Also telling: how coy Affleck has been about discussing the film upon its release. Hardly what you'd expect from a concerned brother-in-law documenting an actual emotional breakdown -- certainly not in our culture of therapy-via-media. Similarly, the film doesn't offer any mitigating factors for the monster it presents -- no "good" side of Phoenix, no outside voices offering any explanation or larger context. If it is real, I'm Still Here isn't very thoughtful, or even, a perfunctory bio-doc.

Personally, I like the idea of a huge, long con -- the idea that somebody would engage in a year of crazy behavior just because they could and because people would buy it. It would be a twisted kick to manipulate the media and public on such a grand and reckless scale.

But would it serve any larger purpose other than proving that it could be done? Revealing that the media (and by extension, ourselves) are this uncritical gaping maw which instantly processes and re-processes anything that meets some minimal criteria of sensational, lurid, head-scratching or newly fat, is hardly breaking news.

But if it is all a ruse, there might be nuggets of awesome in here. I hope that Phoenix did waste the self-important Sean Combs' time, and that Edward James Olmos really talks in greeting-card verse.

Watching the Letterman bit again -- and, viewing Phoenix's spaced-out performance as hoax -- I was struck by how the episode revealed Letterman to be as phony as his guest. Letterman is clearly discomfited, and reacts with needling satire, but he still continues to pimp Phoenix's "last" film, Two Lovers, even without its star's cooperation. This is why talk shows exist: It's already half a hoax that we swallow these "real" couch talks as anything other than extended marketing sessions. (Surprise: Phoenix is booked on Letterman for Sept. 22.)

It's hard to gauge how effective this film is when I'm not sure what it's meant to be doing. I suspect that this slipperiness may be the point. Whether it's real doesn't matter for a viewer. If it's revealed to be a prank, then -- whoa -- Phoenix is smarter than we thought. If it's real, it's simply a prurient confirmation of what we already "know" about celebrities who flame out.

Either way, it's not necessarily the end for Phoenix, whether he was serious about quitting acting or not. Hollywood loves "genius" that mirrors its own narcissism -- Joaquin, you mad devil! If the dude really bottoms out, we'll just tut-tut sagely, and usher in the next guy. But if Phoenix has a lost year and recovers, then it's uplifting for us all -- a real Robert Downey Jr. moment!

So, should you see it? It's admittedly a curiosity piece, no matter which side you take, and is sure to generate plenty of post-film discussion. Events in the film aren't particularly interesting -- who wants to hang out with some drugged-up loudmouth feeling sorry for himself, real or not? -- but like the proverbial train-wreck, you can't stop watching.

You don't have to believe the hype. But if you see this, prepare to get caught up in it. That seems to be why the film exists.

, if it's real;

, if it's a half-hoax;

, if it's a full-on hoax

 

Starts Fri., Sept. 17. Regent Square

Cracked actor: Joaquin Phoenix rocks the mic.
  • Cracked actor: Joaquin Phoenix rocks the mic.

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