This film is unlike what you expect from a biopic, there is no abstruse birth,…
Darn you, Casey Affleck! Just as I was about to publish my opinions on your directorial debut, ‘I’m Still Here’, you go and spoil it all by revealing the truth about this so called documentary. Following much speculation over whether or not the film really shows the actor Joaquin Phoenix having a spectacular public meltdown, Affleck has finally come clean. They were just fooling around after all. So, for me, it was back to the keyboard for a rethink and a rewrite of this review.
Affleck’s timing has not only meant more work for yours truly but will also affect the audience’s perception of ‘I’m Still Here’ and, possibly, their enjoyment of the film. Where once they might have laughed one moment and squirmed the next, the latter reaction is now less likely. Affleck’s announcement will probably not help the marketing of the film either, which was no doubt counting on the element of uncertainty to draw in the curious punter. What remains is one big wind-up, of the media and Hollywood, to which the audience is now complicit.
The Joaquin Phoenix seen here is miles away from the well-chiselled star of ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Walk the Line.’ His hair and beard are an unkempt mess, ready accommodation for any passing starlings. He stumbles and mumbles and swears like a trooper. Phoenix behaves less like a movie idol and more like a man you might see at a bus stop conversing with invisible friends. The film’s unflattering portrayal of the actor shows him abusing his staff, snorting lines of coke and cavorting with call-girls. Had this actually been real it would doubtless have spelled the end of Phoenix’s career, not so much a car crash as a fourteen vehicle pile up on the M5.
‘I’m Still Here’ purports to show a year in the life of Phoenix, at a time when he has decided to reject acting in order to become a rap star. He announces this ‘exclusively’ to every journalist he encounters and is met with incredulity, at best, and, at worst, total derision. When asked if he is worried that he will be laughed at, Phoenix responds, “I’ve been laughed at before. Have you seen some of my movies?”
Undeterred, Phoenix sets his sights on getting the producer P. Diddy to mentor his debut album. He is assisted in his ambitions by his personnel assistant Antoine, who has the foppish air of Jarvis Cocker and the voice of Charlie from the TV show ‘Lost.’ Only Phoenix has any real faith in his ambitions and when he finally meets up with Diddy the music star wisely asks for the money up front.
Meanwhile, Phoenix refuses to promote his new and apparently final dramatic film, ‘Two Lovers’. When he eventually relents it results in an excruciating and unresponsive appearance on the David Letterman show. Swiftly becoming a Hollywood joke, the ex-actor pushes on with his music plans until he finally gets the chance to perform at a nightclub. His attempts to win over the cynical crowd end in disaster when he leaps from the stage onto a persistent heckler.
Even before Affleck’s statement, I had a sneaking suspicion that ‘I’m Still Here’ was not what the film’s makers claimed it to be, although you probably will not believe me now. The clues were there all along. Why would Affleck, who is married to Phoenix’s sister, present such a potentially destructive portrait of his brother-law? There are scenes which are obviously staged, such as Ben Stiller popping in to try and persuade Phoenix to appear in ‘Greenberg’ or the moment where Phoenix confronts Antoine over claims that he has been selling stories to the press.
In any case, we are teased several times during the film as to its authenticity. Someone (Affleck himself perhaps) had already leaked the idea of the film being a sham to a magazine, a fact which is referenced in ‘I’m Still Here’. In the end credits, Affleck and Phoenix are listed as co-writers which is somewhat unusual for a supposedly non-fiction work.
The fact that both men put such effort into their scheme, with Phoenix maintaining his bedraggled and confused persona for a good two years, helped to make their ruse all the more convincing. The new game for the film’s audience is guessing who was in on the deal. Probably not Sean Penn, who looks slightly worried when his dishevelled old friend hugs him and won’t let go at a charity gig. P. Diddy, perhaps, whose reactions to hearing Phoenix’s rap songs for the first time are hilarious but maybe not as spontaneous as we are led to believe.
It was a brilliant and well executed con but why do it at all? For one thing, it holds up a mirror to the show biz media and the resulting reflection is pretty ugly. By turning a popular and very photogenic actor into a babbling hobo and throwing him into the lion’s den of press attention, some awful truths are exposed. Faced with someone who will not play by their rules or fit into their narrow remit, the hacks round on Phoenix as if he were a wounded gazelle. They mock him, insult him and generally tear him to shreds, showing little sympathy for any psychological issues which might have explained his behaviour.
Affleck does a good job as director but the real kudos belong to Phoenix who gives what must surely be the performance of his life. Phoenix went above and beyond the call of duty for his role. The fact that people saw it as anything more than that is a tribute to his talents, while the news that it really was just acting comes as a considerable relief.