Most everyone saw, or heard about, Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre, basically incoherent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman last February. The blogosphere exploded with speculation. Was it a hoax? Was Joaquin really quitting acting, only to be known as JP, an aspiring rap artist? Or, was it, gulp, for real?
Casey Affleck’s unsettling, if not suspicious documentary, won’t answer all your questions, but it knows it doesn’t have to, either.
Affleck, Phoenix’s good friend and brother-in-law, followed Phoenix around for almost a year shortly after the two-time Oscar nominee announced he was giving up acting for good. The result is quite remarkable.
Over the course of the movie we witness Phoenix snort cocaine, order prostitutes off the internet, snort cocaine off of the breasts of said prostitutes, go ape shit on his best friends, punch out attendees at his rap performances, piss off Sean “Diddy” Combs, and, yes, bomb on Letterman.
Much in the way of D.A. Pinnebaker’s brilliant 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, I’m Still Here doesn’t fully explain Phoenix as a man, or really unveil the true reason he decided to quit a profession he was, mostly, quite good at. Instead, we’re presented a portrait of someone with very little self esteem, who was, suspiciously, all right with having cameras on him 24/7 for a year.
I’ve used the word suspicious twice because as Phoenix’s gut grows larger and his beard becomes scruffier, his antics become increasingly more out of control. Several times during the film, I wondered how much of what I was seeing was real, and how much was simply faked or improved upon.
After much pondering, I think Joaquin Phoenix did truly want to find new life inspiration by becoming a rapper. I do think that most of what he does in the film – the tirades, the drugs, the sex – did indeed happen. Is he playing up for the cameras? Of course. But I think the root cause is genuine.
There are a few moments in the film which led me to believe this. Phoenix admits multiple times that his music is shit and that he doesn’t know how to clean his slate. Also, it’s hard to say that Phoenix escaping from a limo and fleeing into the woods directly after his Letterman appearance, sobbing hysterically in the arms of his best friend, is fake. If it is, it’s the best acting he’s ever done.
As a film, first-time director Casey Affleck uses some groovy editing techniques (speeding up a long tracking shot of Phoenix getting girls into his hotel room is a highlight), but really, the star here is the film’s subject. We may not know any more about him, but, like he asks of the audience in his opening monologue, we may not necessarily judge him (as much) anymore.
It’s just been released that Phoenix will sit in Letterman’s guest chair on Wednesday Sept. 22. I suppose he is still here after all. A-
Amendment to original review:
Well, Casey Affleck recently told the New York Times that his film was all a complete lie. No no... "performance art," as he calls it. Bullshit. If Affleck admitted up front that this was a mockumentary, in the way of This Is Spinal Tap, then we all could've rolled with it. But admitting that your film is all fake a week after its release is just lazy. The Blair Witch Project did that, rather successfully, and it hasn't been done well since. We knew from the get-go that characters in Paranormal Activity were actors, but that film was still scary as all hell.
Admitting up front that I'm Still Here was going to be a piece of "performance art" would've been fine. Audiences love watching real actors play caricatures of themselves (Curb Your Enthusiasm comes to mind).
But finding out it's a hoax, which most of us were expecting anyway, is just flat out fucking lame. If you read my initial review it is obvious that I was fooled. Affleck says that wasn't his intention, but I'm still pissed anyway. In my review I said that if the film was fake, it was the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix's career. Because I still partly believe that, I'll go easy with my new grade of D-. But it probably deserves worse.