by KYW’s Bill Wine —
Question: Is it a hoax or is it real? Answer: Yes.
I’m Still Here is a documentary, a mockumentary, and even occasionally a shockumentary.
Two years ago, screen actor Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was giving up acting: he just didn’t want to play the “character” of Joaquin anymore.
This, despite a crowded résumé that listed acting gigs in a couple dozen movies over the course of 15 years, and approbation for his work in the form of two Oscar nominations — one as best supporting actor in Gladiator in 2000 and one as best actor in Walk the Line (portraying Johnny Cash) in 2005.
He would, he announced, move into a different arena: hip-hop music.
Whether he has any appreciable talent for rapping is a nagging concern that hovers over the film like a rogue traffic helicopter. Let’s just say that, although we may not deem his rapping abilities wholly missing, the Peter Principle comes to mind — often.
His public appearances weren’t many in 2008, but they seemed to reveal someone who was more or less coming apart at the seams. Most notably, he guested on “The Late Show with David Letterman” wearing a full beard and seeming to have no interest whatsoever in publicizing his latest movie, Two Lovers — which was his reason for being there.
Nor did the words “Good” and “Bye” on his knuckles do anything to indicate otherwise.
But all of these incidents were recorded by a modest camera crew, not for posterity but for this film, a music documentary — of sorts — that chronicles Phoenix’s reinvention of himself from actor to rapper.
The full, official title — I’m Still Here: The Lost Years of Joaquin Phoenix — includes a subtitle that overstates the film’s scope: it’s actually one tumultuous year in Phoenix’s life.
But, as we watch this cinematic slice of performance art, we never stop wondering whether it’s possible for JP, as his staffers call him, or for the staffers themselves to forget that there is a camera recording their every word and gesture.
On a pure curiosity level, the first few reels deliver as an absorbing commentary on our current (or is it abiding?) fascination with the fame game.
But while some viewers will be in thrall throughout, others will eventually become weary if not irritated with the dizzying twin levels of self-indulgence and narcissism. And still others will detest it from frame one. Takes all kinds.
Director Casey Affleck, exploiting his Hollywood access to a fare-thee-well, also co-produced and co-scripted with Phoenix, who is his real-life brother-in-law, and co-edited and co-shot. (Affleck’s older brother Ben is also directing now and guided him to a terrific performance in Gone Baby Gone in 2007.)
This is Casey’s debut in the director’s chair (although he has directed a number of shorts for the Sundance Channel) and he opens and closes his directorial debut with a metaphoric sequence ostensibly showing Phoenix as a child diving from an intimidating height into shallow water: if this is a clue to this puzzle, we observe, it’s as ambiguous as everything else on display.
The co-creators and co-conspirators are exploring celebrity as well as Phoenix’s dream of hip-hop artistry. He discusses his desire not to be liked or disliked but to be understood.
The film, on the other hand, wants to be liked without quite being understood. And yet it lingers forever over a graphic vomiting scene as if daring us to dismiss the film entirely.
Affleck and Phoenix want us to wonder whether their work is revealing or inventing, but, although we cannot deny that it seems authentic and authoritative much of the time, everyone — everyone! — knows that there is a recording in progress.
And we’re preoccupied wondering whether we are witnessing a nervous breakdown in progress or just the front end of a practical joke; we’re left to ponder whether this Phoenix would eventually rise from the ashes or be helplessly giggling each time the cameras left the room.
The thought also persists that maybe the director and star are just rich, famous guys with too much time on their hands.
Which is why we’ll document 2½ stars out of 4 for this psych-out of a psychodrama.
Question: Is Phoenix actually unraveling or is this just a strong performance? Answer: Yes.