Sunday, October 10, 2010

"I'm Still Here"

I'm Still Here - Directed by Casey Affleck, written by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix, starring Joaquin Phoenix - Rated R

So it was all fake? Who cares? It's funny and that's good enough for me.

I’m Still Here is the “documentary” that is the chronicling of actor Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement from acting and his attempt to become a rapper…and his self destruction as well. It was all filmed by his brother-in-law (and actor in his own right) Casey Affleck. The story behind this documentary is arguably more interesting than the movie itself.

The basic question from the very beginning of this whole story was, “Is he serious or is this all some big joke?” Then Phoenix famously went on David Letterman’s show and really created a stir with his strange, possibly drugged out behavior. That appearance was pretty convincing, but it was not enough to definitively say if he was really messed up or just messing with us. When the film debuted about a month ago, critics had to come up with their own conclusion. Some believed it all and some called it a hoax. I don’t have the benefit of making a guess, because, as you probably already know, Affleck admitted it was all a work of fiction and Phoenix returned to Letterman’s show clean-cut and normal.

I was finally able to watch I’m Still Here when I saw that it was available on Amazon On Demand. Obviously, I can’t watch this and ignore the fact that I know it’s fake. I can say that all involved were very determined and willing to go to extreme lengths to keep the lie alive. Some have questioned Affleck’s decision to announce that this was all a hoax. I think it was very wise on his part. If I watched this unaware of the truth, I would have responded to it very differently. I may have asked what was wrong with the filmmakers. Why would they just sit back and watch their friend destroy himself? And I would wonder why I was watching the disturbing film.

As it turns out, I was watching a comedy, and a very funny one at that. Phoenix’s outbursts and drugged out behavior aren’t disturbing, they’re hilarious. It’s all just a performance, but a meta-performance. He’s acting like an actor who wants to stop acting…all while being filmed. It’s ridiculous, but I found it amusing and impressive. Phoenix deserves plenty of praise for this performance; if not just for the scenes in the film, then for his willingness to destroy his public image and his career. He ditched any semblance of his past self for the grungy look you see in the poster. The man really delved into this new persona, all for a fake documentary that hardly anyone has watched. You have to respect that sort of dedication, though I am glad that it was all a joke so he can get back to regular movies.

Once you establish that this is a comedy, then the rest of the movie works very well. I’m Still Here is mainly about Phoenix’s quest to become a rapper. I’m not the foremost authority on rap music, but I must say that Phoenix’s music in this film is absolutely terrible. He mumbles every song over strange beats and backup singers. But he believes in it (or seems to, anyway). Much of the film consists of Phoenix trying to track down Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy, Diddy, Puff Daddy, etc.) to see if he will produce his album. All of the misguided attempts to meet with Combs are amusing and when he finally gets some face time with him it’s great. Combs, who was reportedly in on the joke, plays the part very well, questioning Phoenix’s motives and critiquing his music. One of my favorite moments of the film is the look on Combs’s face as he listens to Phoenix’s terrible rapping.

I’m Still Here features other interesting performances as well. Ben Stiller shows up for an amusing conversation. Edward James Olmos inexplicably arrives with life advice. Phoenix’s friend Antony Langdon has the toughest role, though. The former guitarist for Spacehog has to listen to Phoenix’s constant berating and keep a straight face as they argue. I found his performance very sincere.

Antony gets the thankless role in I’m Still Here. This is all due to Affleck and Phoenix’s writing. Phoenix just blames everything that is wrong with his new career on Antony and his paranoid theories about Antony are so ridiculous that you have to laugh. But Antony’s moments earlier in the film had me scratching my head. There are a couple of scenes in which Antony appears nude. It makes no sense to just randomly show this man naked. It’s referred to later in the movie and explained and it ends up being another funny aspect of the film.

I mention all of that because this is one example of Affleck’s direction. This is the first film he’s ever attempted to direct and he has admitted that he was unprepared for the task at first. I think he’s done a fine job, here. He knows what to show and what works, for the most part. Some of the more serious moments don’t work (mainly because I knew it was a joke, though), but that’s bound to happen when you make a movie this complicated.

I’m Still Here is an interesting, funny, and impressive look at what a celebrity breakdown can be, but it’s only funny when you’re in on the joke. If you’re left on the outside, you might find this film disturbing and flat out sickening at times. You could also be put off by the “story” of the film as it doesn’t really lead to any pay off. It basically just stops. I suppose the real ending came from Affleck spoiling the mystery of the film, which turned out to be his best directorial decision.
Check out I’m Still Here if you want to see a parody of celebrity insanity. It’s potentially disturbing, but while you’re watching, remember: it’s all a joke, and a funny one at that.

Random Thoughts
The Letterman interview is hilarious on its own. My favorite moment has to be Phoenix's response to Paul Shaffer: "Are you serious with the maniacal laughter?"

The snow angel bit was so weird and funny: "Dude, do the snow angel!"

The whole hooker encounter was insane.

And lastly, this is a movie in which someone threatens to defecate on somebody's face and it actually happens. I can only assume that they faked that, but if they didn't, then Phoenix is truly dedicated to a disgusting degree.

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