Friday, May 31, 2013


Film by Casey Affleck
Review by Don L. Stradley

Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here

Just a few hours before I sat down to write this, Amanda Bynes was arrested for throwing a bong out a hotel window. Then she went on Twitter and said her mug shots reminded her that she needed a nose job.

That's the era we're in now; celebrities go off the rails and their problems are just more entertainment for us. We respond in an ugly manner. The race is on to tweet the funniest comment, print the most hideous mugshot, or catch someone on video doing something ridiculous. Thanks to technology, celebrities are no longer larger than life. They've become smaller than life.

Maybe it was inevitable. The public, it seems, has always secretly detested celebrities. We tolerate their rise in order to see them fall. If we can put our foot on their necks while they writhe, all the better. The money they make is not for their talent; it's compensation for the abuse we are going to hand them.

When Joaquin Phoenix announced he was leaving acting in 2008 to pursue a career as a hip hop artist, the media and the public couldn't kick him in the ass hard enough or fast enough. 
As we now  know, it all turned out to be a sham put on by Phoenix and his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. The resulting movie, I'm Not Here (2010), is a classic study in bloated narcissism, media manipulation, and the price of stardom. It's brilliant. Too bad so many were offended.
The stage had been set. Phoenix was a heralded young actor with nothing but upside, a two-time Oscar nominee, having earned a Golden Globe for his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line. Out of the blue,  he announced his retirement from acting.  Had any young actor ever done such a thing?

The first part of I'm Still Here is about Phoenix making the announcement, and giving his reason: he doesn't want to be a puppet anymore.  The rest is about his effort to convince Sean "P-Diddy" Combs to produce his album,  and how he handles an increasingly mean and cynical media.  There are several funny moments, including  Phoenix's failed effort to attend President Obama's inauguration (he falls asleep at his hotel and misses it) and his attempts at performing in clubs. Through it all, there's the sense that Phoenix not only made a mistake, but may have permanently lost his way. At one point he screams, "I'll be a joke forever!"

Paunchy and hairy (he's a cross between Jerry Garcia and late '60s era Brian Wilson) Phoenix shambles across a landscape of media hacks, agents, promoters, night clubs, red carpet events, talk shows, airports, hotels, electronic gates, and smug reporters.  
Phoenix stays "in character" throughout, demanding to be taken seriously. He goes for both the broad comic effect - there are plenty of scenes involving drugs, vomit, and hookers - and more subtle stuff, including some hilarious throwaway lines that are barely heard.

Part of the film's fun is the way people react to him. During an encounter with rapper Mos Def,  Phoenix says, "I want to create the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' of rap, something epic," to which the bemused Def answers, "Epic is epic." Ben Stiller comes to Phoenix's house to show him a script. Phoenix, now going by his rapper name "JP", encourages Stiller to be himself and to not act like Ben Stiller. The idea is mind-bending. Meanwhile, Diddy tries to let Phoenix down gently, telling him that he's not ready to record anything. The scenes between Phoenix and Diddy are almost painful to watch.

Phoenix and Affleck started out as youngsters in the business. They know how Hollywood people act and react. When Phoenix shouts ugly threats at one of his assistants, it comes from experience; this is probably what he's observed. At one point Phoenix rails at the fact that he acted in Reservation Road, while Leo DiCaprio acted in Revolutionary Road. "He was nominated for an award," Phoenix grouses. "He's just lucky."

By the time I'm Still Here was released,  the joke was over. By punking the media, he became, for a moment, a media sensation. Unfortunately, there'd been enough leaks that many knew what Phoenix was doing. His denial is part of the movie, too. The DVD commentary reveals that Affleck had coached Phoenix to deal with non-believers by simply losing his temper and putting them on the defensive.  Phoenix had an instinct for this.

Andy Kaufman used to do this sort of thing all the time, trying out different characters in public, going out of his way to alienate and confuse people. Kaufman never put a name on what he did. He described himself as a song and dance man. Phoenix, too, is a song and dance man. The song Phoenix performs near the end of the film is actually a pretty good one. He could've been the new Biz Markie.

The fact that Phoenix was in control the whole time seemed to annoy people. Critics reacted to his attempt to change careers like mean children poking a wounded bear with a stick. Then they seemed angry that they had wasted their kicks on someone who wasn't down at all. "If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I'm going to be seriously pissed," wrote the late Roger Ebert in his review. Of course, some critics appreciated I'm Still Here, but usually with reservations. There were plenty who just didn't get it. Some, justifiably, were uncomfortable watching Phoenix use so many drugs in the movie, when his brother River had died of an overdose. 
I'll go out on a limb. Phoenix should have won an Oscar for his role as "Joaquin Phoenix" in I'm Still Here. No other actor that year worked so hard, or for so long, or risked so much. Some might argue that he wasn't really acting, but he was. I'm Still Here is Phoenix's Raging Bull.  It's his Network. It's his La Dolce Vita. At the very least, it's his This is Spinal Tap.

If I haven't done a good enough job making a case for the film, it's because I haven't mentioned how moving some of it is; Phoenix seems terribly sad and alone at times. He's often isolated in a sparsely furnished house with only a few dogs and a pair of hapless assistants for company. Affleck, making his directorial debut, found a distinctive look for the film by keeping Phoenix alone in most shots. 

In a way, Phoenix seems like a newly divorced man, having divorced himself from acting.  When he cries after a disastrous appearance on David Letterman's show, he's like a newly single man realizing that life as he knew it is over. When Diddy balks at recording him, Phoenix is so shocked he can barely talk. He can only say, in a strangled whisper, "But I wanted to make an album..." That he's been a petulant twit for most of the movie yet generates pathos here is a tribute to his skills as an actor.
Yet, I'm Still Here isn't even listed as one of Phoenix's films on the Internet Movie Database. It's tucked away in the section devoted to television appearances and documentaries.
Perhaps a more accurate description of this work might be called "performance art." A poster for a Roy Lichtenstein  exhibit  stares over Phoenix's shoulder during an early scene, reminding us perhaps that what we're watching is a kind of pop-art commentary on the state we're in with too many reality shows, too many celebrities having meltdowns. This month it's Amanda Bynes. Next month, someone else.

One could say Phoenix was simply making fun of celebrity crack-ups, and I'm Still Here could certainly be enjoyed as no more than a comic 'mockumentary,' or an exercise in guerrilla film making, the sort that Sacha Baron Cohen used to do as Borat and Bruno. But Phoenix and Affleck were also telling a story. Phoenix played a celebrity who wanted to dump it all and reinvent himself, only to find that he couldn't. And along with this story they tell, there's also a picture of how the public and the media react to celebrities. Phoenix made himself a target for people's hate, and their instinct was to attack and mock. Was Letterman in on it? I don't really care. He allegedly knew nothing. I like that.
From the I'm Still Here DVD commentary  provided by Phoenix, Affleck, and several crew members, we learn that Stiller and Diddy were in on the angle (Diddy is a good actor). We also learn that one of the smarmiest reporters turned out to be an intern working on the film. He said he was told to "take all of the hate I have for hipsters and direct it towards Joaquin." Perhaps most surprisingly, we learn that some of the scenes that felt improvised were actually written by Affleck.

We learn that the project was more fun than it looked, and that a lot of it was done on the fly - Phoenix's announcement to Entertainment Tonight that he was quitting was a spur of the moment idea, suggested by Affleck just seconds before. It's no wonder Phoenix and Affleck named their production company, "They're Gonna Kill Us Productions." They knew what they were gambling with.

What comes across most in the commentary is Affleck's intelligence as a director. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve, but  he has a sly understanding of acting and human nature. This is particularly noticeable in the outtakes included on the DVD; many of them are funny, but Phoenix was too funny, too actorish. Affleck was wise to cut them. We may not know exactly what to call I'm Still Here but Affleck knew exactly what he wanted.


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