Rookie director Casey Affleck is playing out his hand on the bizarre Joaquin Phoenix documentary I'm Still Here, which debuted in Venice Monday to rousing applause, and is still inspiring huge debate. What the hell is Phoenix doing? Committing career suicide? Creating an indelibly accurate portrait of a miserable depressed self-medicating and deluded actor? Doing an Andy Kaufman-type performance piece, egged on by Affleck?
The movie is often funny but takes a darker turn as the actor abuses his well-hung acloholic assistant (who memorably gets him back), makes his extraordinary David Letterman appearance, and pursues P. Diddy to produce his hip hop record. Diddy is just as confused as we are. Is this a put-on? I admired the way Diddy played out the scene, just in case, but, like Edward James Olmos, he seemed to be genuinely trying (on camera) to do the right thing by a fellow artist who seemed very troubled. "I'm stuck in a ridiculous self-imposed prison of characterization," Phoenix explains in the film. He wants to escape being branded as "emotional, intense and complicated." He no longer wants to play "the character of Joaquin Phoenix." This documentary was his way of "doing something that represents me...to bring what is inside me out." Later he says, "Is it that your dream is unattainable, or is it the wrong dream?"
When Phoenix walks the red carpet after a Paul Newman benefit and blurts out that he is retiring, all hell breaks loose with his agent (Patrick Whitesell) and publicist (Sue Patricola). Affleck points out, reasonably enough, that Phoenix should have checked in with them first.
Phoenix does show up for the Two Lovers press junket, wearing a new black suit to cover his increasing bulk. As for the hip-hop career, why couldn't he hire a coach to help him nail it? Someone as gifted as Phoenix, who after all channeled Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, must know the levels of professionalism required with any artistic endeavor. His hip hop performances suck, with such lyrics as "I feel real, I won't kneel."
If this is a Sacha Baron Cohen/let's-run-with-each-situation portrait of a narcissistic actor gone awry--which makes it a fitting companion piece to Sofia Coppola's Somewhere--then it's brilliant, although the movie gets shrill and annoying in the second half. But if it's a document of an actor going down the tubes--doing cocaine on camera, trawling for prostitutes, jumping into the audience to bash a fan wearing a Ben Stiller fake beard and getting punched in the gut (making him throw up), then that's not funny at all. And what is Affleck's complicity in this?
Distributor Magnolia (which did not put up much for this project), hands out the following carefully-worded production note synopsis:
The directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actor Casey Affleck, I'm Still Here is a striking portrayal of a tumultuous year in the life of internationally acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix. With remarkable success, I'm Still Here follows the Oscar-nominee as he announces his retirement from a successful film career in the fall of 2008 and sets off to reinvent himself as a hip hop musician. Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, and always riveting, the film is a portrait of the artist at a crossroads. Defying expectations, it deftly explores notions of courage and creative reinvention, as well as the ramifications of a life spent in the public eye.
I want desperately to buy the former theory. I wanted Phoenix to turn up in Venice to promote the movie and tell us it was all a big joke. But that has not happened. At the Venice press conference, Affleck insisted during a barrage of skeptical questions that this was a straight documentary, that what you see is what you get.
As to why a thinner, clean-shaven Phoenix flew to Venice but did not attend the press conference (he sat hidden in the back at the later public screening), Affleck said: “He’s trying to embrace the film… he’s not hiding from the movie. I hope he’ll support it but in what capacity is up to him.” Phoenix shares producing and writing credit with Affleck, who is a smart guy and Phoenix's brother-in-law. Would he sign on to destroy a fellow actor like this? “It’s a very compassionate portrayal," Affleck said with a straight face. “I have a lot of love for him and I don’t feel like that’s been compromised at all...I’m not sure what it says about celebrity, but whatever it is it’s not very nice." The film is about "friendship, ambition and the dreams of an artist.” Hmmm.
Perhaps the self-destructive Phoenix wanted to never turn back from his determination to leave acting. If he wanted to truly end his career, this movie was an effective way to do it. But there's still too much performing going on, especially the Letterman show, which is a more exaggerated version of the Phoenix we see in the doc (although he may have been nervous, rattled and drugged out). If Affleck is sincere, then he may have lost perspective inside the crazy Entourage reality show shadow world that he shows us. And if this is all an elaborate piece of performance art, then it's time to 'fess up. Also, why the delay of a year and a half since the film's last scene? Endeavor's Whitesell still reps Phoenix, who is looking for an acting job. If he wants to work again, Phoenix has some serious repair work to do.
This fact-fiction debate is not relegated to this movie--other "docs" such as Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish are also wide open for interpretation.
Here's a clip: