Friday, September 10, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "I'm Still Here"

(Special Presentations)
USA, 2010, 108 minutes)
Directed by: Casey Affleck
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Larry McHale, Sean Combs, Ben Stiller, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman

So it was all a big meta-hoax after all.

There, that's it...and more brain power than any further discussion of the subject of "I'm Still Here" deserves. Still, I returned to TIFF for yet another year to review movies, and it was my first screening of the event, so....

In the days between the press screening (my first of the fest) of Casey Affleck's is-it-or-isn't-it "documentary" "I'm Still Here" and the completion of my final draft of my review, it became confirmed that the proverbial "jig" was "up". And from the official camp, no less--perversely, the director himself admitted during an interview with the New York Times that the much-ballyhooed undertaking--an alleged verite chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix' renouncement of his craft to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist--was an entirely staged affair. Immediately, I thought of John Waters' essay "Whatever Happened To Showmanship?"--why in hell would Affleck (presumably a smart guy), and star/accomplice/brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix (presumably a smart guy, too, even if he's playing a dumber version of himself onscreen), atomize whatever chance the film had at box-office success, or at the very least water cooler talking point, before the press tour was even competed?

Chalk it up to the glib brattiness that permeates the exercise on both sides of the lens--now that we know "I'm Still Here" is a preening stunt its conspirators are now trying to defend with a lot of film school babble (although Affleck assures his interviewer that he "never intended to trick anybody...the idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.”), what, if any, are its merits as an entertainment experience?

Not much--and I would've said the same before Affleck's confession.
Phoenix--ordinarily a dynamic, risk-taking actor--slums in the role of "River Phoenix" (much like Chuck Barris played "Chuck Barris" in "The Gong Show Movie") with enough Method-y baggage to infuriate even Brando. Fed up with the sham of the acting profession, he seeks to unmask the "real" Joaquin Phoenix to the world via his self-composed, self-produced hip-hop tracks, but his vapid lyrics and awful-white-boy-rapping reveal nothing but a pitiful imitation of better artists (and clearly, one of them is Heavy D, considering JP's astonishing weight gain within months of his "retirement").

(but it's all an act)

Ditto his droning, nasal, drug-and/or-booze fuelled soliloquies to the lens that reveal nothing more than an insulated, self-pitying pillar-of-salt too stupid, stoned, or brain-damaged to appreciate his good fortune.

(remember, it's an act)

Leaving the shallow pond of Hollywood for the even shallower puddle of the rap music industry, Phoenix, accompanied by his faithful manservants Antony (a recovering drunk) and Larry (a frequently naked enabler), dogs Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (who really wears his own clothing line) from New York to Miami, and ultimately, to Washington, where he's part of newly-elected President Obama's inauguration (inspiring JP to declare "an inauguration is just another Hollywood premiere, but with less pussy"--one of his classier bon mots, actually).

(did I mention that it's an act?)

The often-scatological tedium is occasionally enlivened by some surprising cameos: Ben Stiller visits Phoenix's pig-sty home to offer him a role in "Greenburg", Mos Def reacts "diplomatically" to Phoenix's news of a career change when they meet at an airport, and Edward James Olmos (or "E-Jo") of all people pays an evening visit to deliver a bewildering zen-homily about being a "waterfall on top of a mountain".

Thankfully, the notorious
Feb. 11, 2009 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman is played out in its entirely, given that no matter what the backstage machinations, it remains a classic bit of gonzo television. Letterman's camp insists that the host wasn't in on Phoenix's joke, so their unheard exchange at the commercial break will remain as unknown as Bill Murray's farewell to Scarlett Johansson in "Lost In Translation", and at least provide "I'm Still Here" with a bit of sustaining mystery (Phoenix is scheduled to return to the Ed Sullivan Theatre in October--no doubt the appearance will make for a worthy DVD supplement).

The revelation that the film was a staged lark wasn't entirely surprising, as my smug-o-meter went into overdrive more than a few times, given that some of the plot turns seem a tad too obvious and Syd Field-approved, straining credibility. Mind you, documentary filmmakers have been massaging the truth since Robert Frank asked Nanook to build a larger igloo that would better accommodate his camera equipment, so it seems moot to argue about authenticity these days.

(But in retrospect, the credit "co-written by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix" in the end crawl should've tipped me off...ditto the credit to Affleck's father in the role of
Phoenix's dad...)

And please, can we knock it off with the "post-modern"-shtick? When Andy Kaufman--an undeniable avante garde genius--pulled this kind of public stunt, it was genuinely ground-breaking, challenging, and even endearing, esp. at time when the world found fascination in The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and deemed Shields And Yarnell worthy of a weekly variety program. Since then, it's become a tiresome defence for crappy art and lazy irony that died along Baudrillard back in 2007.

Shakier than "Cloverfield" and featuring a scarier monster, "I'm Not There" is a wholly repellent sensory experience--the unlikely marriage of Frederick Wiseman and Michael and Roberta Findley--and the very definition of a "tough-sit" by even the most forgiving moviegoer's standards.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis