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Sunday, September 19, 2010

I'm Still Here (2010)

Gawkers have been feeding on Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre n' tasty media nuggets for more than a year, buzzing about what his particular brand of crazy might be: Too many pills? Tertiary syphilis? Brainwashed by Scientologists? Lead poisoning? Whatever horse you bet on, Casey Affleck's mockumentary I'm Still Here has made it apparent that "Smug Performance Artist" won the race by a nose.

The 108 minute film chronicles Phoenix's "retirement" from acting and his miserable failure as a hip hop artist. Although it was initially hyped as cinema verité, director Casey Affleck came right out and said that the film is not a real documentary. The fellow audience members in the theatre last night didn't seem so sure, which is a good indicator of how truly skilled Phoenix is at channeling his inner-schlub.

I'm Still Here's Phoenix looks like a bizarre blend of Zach Galifianakis and a demented Rabbinical student. He stumbles through the film, ataxic and incoherent, chain-smoking and mumbling about the great sisyphean weight of his celebrity. And it's hilarious. It is hilarious, I think, because we know that it is not real. Had I been watching the actual decline and fall of a real human being, I would probably be vomiting all over my tie right now (yes, he vomits on his own tie. And it's pretty funny). I have no idea how many of the celebrity encounters are real in the film; is Affleck trying to create another Borat with guerilla satire? Or is this just another Rutles or Spinal Tap, and everyone involved is in on the joke? Watching P. Diddy attempt to seriously critique Phoenix's "album" of mush-mouthed, cacophonous rap muzak convinced me that yes, it must have all been staged. As professional and genteel as Mr. Combs appears to be in the film, I simply cannot believe that he would have tolerated such buffoonery (not to mention) cameras in his workplace without being in on the joke.

Assuming that I'm Still Here is, indeed, a mockumentary, Phoenix and Affleck successfully demonstrate what fiction and performance are all about: creating the illusion of reality. And these guys spent a lot of time setting up an unlikely scenario that, for the most part, sucked people in or at least had them wondering how much of it was real. All the illusion really achieves, however, is to demonstrate how gullible people are. It is possible that Phoenix and Affleck are attempting to teach us to question the veracity of celebrity news and of news media in general. If this was the goal, I think it could have been achieved in 90 minutes. If the goal was simply to make us all laugh, then mission accomplished. I laughed, I squirmed, I laughed some more, I put my head in my hands, and then I wiped tears off my face. But my original point stands: I could have laughed just as hard at 90 minutes of petulant, self-indulgent shenanigans, and done with fewer shots of Phoenix's backfat and hooker ogling.