September 22, 2010

300 Words About: I'm Still Here

Last week, before Casey Affleck inexplicably broke his silence about I'm Still Here being a mostly scripted hoax, I told a friend of mine how great it would be if Joaquin Phoenix walked out onto the stage of "The Late Show with David Letterman" tonight with a clean-shaven face and a normal personality. What a perfect "Gotcha!" opportunity it would have been.

Alas, his appearance will now be an anticlimactic reunion in which he will no doubt apologize to Letterman and probably fail to explain exactly what I'm Still Here is "about". From where I sit, having seen it a couple of weeks ago and immediately recognizing a number of things that just could not be real, I don't think there is anything to explain. Either you consider I'm Still Here a brilliant skewering of Hollywood celebrity culture (featuring a Best Actor-nominee worthy performance; the best of Phoenix's career), or you consider I'm Still Here just plain offensive, a joke on the movie industry and a waste of everyone's time. Much of your reaction may depend on whether you saw it before or after the cat was officially out of the bag - but if you have seen it, wasn't it pretty obvious while watching that Casey Affleck was documenting a manufactured reality?

Consider Phoenix almost breaking character as he briefly glimpses at Affleck during the Edward James Olmos scene, incredulous at the footage they are getting. Consider Phoenix complaining about things like "Leo and Toby" flying in private jets, or his over-the-top whining about his drug supply. Consider the awkward exchanges between Phoenix and his inner circle, wherein he endlessly berates them and they barely react (other than the facial defecation, which is clearly staged). Or just consider the fact that the end credits clearly spell out the cast of actors (e.g., Affleck's dad playing the part of Phoenix's father in "Panama"). Maybe I'm just a more observant viewer than most, but I would think that most focused movie-goers and critics would pick up on at least a few of these clues.

But whether or not you feel like you've been unfairly taken for a ride, there are a few aspects of I'm Still Here that I think should be appreciated. First, the film shows us just how little the average person actually knew about Joaquin Phoenix to begin with; that we still don't know anything about the "real" him is fascinating to consider. Second, I'm Still Here probably chronicles the death of a Hollywood career as it would happen - as it does happen, to many former stars. Lastly, it demonstrates just how talented an actor Joaquin Phoenix is, playing an alternate version of himself in a much more committed way than, say, John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich.

Few actors would ever take the risk to spend two years on a project like this, and I hope Phoenix's career is justly rewarded - even if Hollywood is bitter that the joke was always on them.

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