Review: ‘I’m Still Here’
Hoax, Celebrity Meltdown, or an Artist Trying to Reinvent Himself?
Thursday, September 9, 2010
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "I'm Still Here."
A couple years ago actor Joaquin Phoenix claimed to be retiring from acting in order to pursue a career in hip-hop music. Now the film "I'm Still Here" (opening September 10 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) chronicles that rocky transition and raises a few questions.
In 2008, actor Joaquin Phoenix surprised E! News with this announcement.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Listen I want to take this opportunity also to give you an exclusive and talk a little about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor, I’m not doing films any more…. Why are you laughing?
REPORTER: I’m not laughing I’m just getting the sense that you’re kidding.
And so do we. Phoenix claimed he was ending his acting career to become a hip-hop musician and for many that was hard to take seriously. Now actor Casey Affleck has made a documentary about his brother-in-law’s attempt to reinvent himself.
But as Phoenix tries to enter the music world he stumbles badly. At one point, he arrives late for a meeting with a famous rapper and doesn’t even know how to address his host.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Uh, Phoenix, Joaquin, Phoenix to see Diddy, Mr. Combs, Sean.
It’s hard to believe this documentary when everyone seems to be self-consciously performing. Even Affleck can’t even keep a straight face when interviewed by the E! reporter that had just spoken with his brother-in-law.
REPORTER: Joaquin retiring, true or false?
CASEY AFFLECK: Uh yes, um I guess he’s getting into I guess he’s getting into music I mean don’t know he’s putting out an album I gotta do this…
It was supposed to be a surprise announcement yet Affleck is ready with his cameras to record the breaking news on the red carpet. He seems ready to make a documentary before Phoenix would have even been aware there was a documentary to make. That’s only one of the reasons it’s a little hard to buy “I’m Still Here” as anything but a hoax.
We’ve come to a point in our technology and art where the line between fact and fiction can easily be blurred. We have Christopher Guest making overt mockumentaries that poke fun at real things like community theater and folk music. Then we have Sasha Baron Cohen assuming a character like Borat or Bruno and then half scripting, half improvising bizarre reality TV comedies. We have Jean-Claude Van Damme playing himself in a fiction film that seems all too painfully real. And we have Michael Moore serving up documentaries that are as scripted as a fiction film.
In the case of “I’m Still Here?” you have to ask yourself, is it a truthful documentary, a hoax, or a mockumentary? And does it even matter? The truth is it may be all three. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix got tired of acting and working in Hollywood. His rants and raves about not wanting to be a puppet and mouthing someone else’s lines are probably real. So his solution may have been to entertain himself by pulling an elaborate stunt, one in which like Cohen, he assumes a character. Only in this case the character is himself.
LETTERMAN: When will we see the new music career take off cause we want to be there.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: I’d love to come on the show.
This notorious appearance on Letterman made people begin to wonder if Phoenix had really lost it. But I doubt Letterman would have allowed Phoenix to appear on the show and surprise him with this behavior. The whole thing feels planned because Letterman seems so at ease with Phoenix' weirdness, as if he had bee prepared for it. Plus, Affleck recuts the talk show footage for the film to maximize the awkwardness and he cuts out the friendly handshake between Phoenix and Letterman that ends the interview. So again, this makes it seem staged with Affleck using only the material that suits him.
LETTERMAN: Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.
The problem, though, is that for a hoax to be truly effective, people need to be fooled. But Phoenix and Affleck seem so pleased with themselves about how clever they are that they simply can’t contain themselves. At one point Affleck even interviews the woman who reported that the whole thing was a fraud. You feel both Affleck and the reporter smirking as she says she can’t reveal her source. Perhaps that’s because her source is the man asking the question. Plus the film ends with a string of jokey credits, and thanks to such merry pranksters as Ben Stiller and Shepherd Fairey. That seems to be revealing their hand rather than trying to be serious. I also think I saw a credit for someone playing Joaquin's dad, and that makes me wonder if the home movie footage that opens the film is also a fake. (But the complete credits were not in the production notes so I couldn't verify the credit.)
A better example of a cinematic hoax is the recent “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” It truly leaves you wondering if you’ve been hoodwinked or not but you don’t care because you’ve been raucously entertained and privy to a brilliant satire on the art world. But Joaquin and company are not that entertaining and they’re not capable of wicked satire. Maybe someone like Werner Herzog -- who mocked himself to perfection in "Incident at Loch Ness" -- could have pulled this off with more bite and flair.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: What I want it to be is like a place of true experimentation…
SEAN COMBS: Can you do that in acting?
Maybe Joaquin is satirizing himself and self-absorbed, tormented artists. But to what end? If it’s real than it’s at least truthful and painful. If it’s a performance then it’s merely humorless and dull.
In the end I feel the same way about this film as I do about conspiracies. I have a hard time believing in government conspiracies because that would mean the people in charge are smart enough to mastermind a complex plan. So, if all that “I’m Still Here” documents is a hoax then Joaquin Phoenix is a far better actor than I ever suspected. He maintains a dour, humorless, and painfully pretentious demeanor to perfection. So I think the film is finally a mix of fact and fiction, documentary and elaborate pranks.
But because I believe so much of it is fake, it leaves me wondering at what point does all this faux filmmaking simply become meaningless?
Companion viewing: "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "JCVD," "This is Spinal Tap," "Bruno"