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— I’m Still Here is either an elaborate (and cruel) hoax or a genuine atrocity, and while I suspect the former I’m not exactly prepared to reject the latter possibility out of hand. What it most likely is is somewhere in the middle, a seriously intended put-on starring a fragile egoist who is both in on the joke and emotionally disintegrating.

The movie, you may have heard, is a putative cinema verite documentary about a year in the life of movie actor Joaquin Phoenix - a year in which he renounces acting in favor of (and put this on the “hoax” side of the ledger) a career as a freestyle hip-hop artist with an Old Testament beard and a seemingly endless variety of Ray-Ban sunglasses. The film is directed, and largely shot - on apparently quite cheap equipment - by actor Casey Affleck, brother of Ben and husband of Phoenix’s sister Summer. I don’t know Casey Affleck, but if there is anything about this moviethat is not fake, then he is not a nice man.

But the question of whether Casey Affleck is a nice man or not is perhaps beside the point - the real question is whether he’s a good artist, and whether I’m Still Here qualifies as something more interesting than the poorly lit, shakily photographed, very special episode of Entourage it often appears to be.

It might be intended as aninvestigation of tabloid fame, a middle finger extended to the cameras of the paparazzi and the gawkers (that would be us, ladies and gentlemen) beyond the frame. It is a bit like Borat and a bit like an Andy Kaufman performance stunt; it elicits the same sort of dispiriting fascination as a YouTube beheading.

We watch Phoenix snort what appears to be cocaine and smoke what appears to be marijuana. We watch him cruise the Internet and cavort with hookers. We watch him berate his long-suffering assistants - who seem to be, more than anything else, salaried “friends.” We watch as he flies off on fool’s errands, such as seeking out Sean “Diddy” Combs, whom he assumes will want to produce his debut album. We listen as he babbles on and on about his lot, about the insufficiency of acting, about his commitment to his music, about his slurgh murgh awan garbah. (At times, but not often enough, the filmsupplies helpful subtitles so that we can apprehend, if not quite make sense of, what Phoenix is saying.)

There are some terribly sad moments - Phoenix and crew fly off to Washington on the eve of the Obama inauguration without much of a plan, and Phoenix spends the whole time cloistered in an anonymous hotel room. He accuses his personal assistant Antony “Ant” Langdon (who used to be the lead guitarist for the British neo-glam band Spacehog) of selling information to the tabloids - which ultimately results in Langdon taking a particularly vile form of revenge.

And of course the film documents the better known episodes of Phoenix’s long year, including his disastrous performances as a rapper in Miami and Las Vegas and his Crispin Glover-esque appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. (Afterward, Phoenix seems authentically upset and worried that he has caused irreparable damage to his career.)

Yet, while I can’t find much reason to recommend the film - people will see it or not based on their on predilection for cringe-inducing theatrics - I will concede that it took something like courage to make it, and it has some ofthe same iconoclastic power of punk rock, with the same edge of sneering cynicism ballasted by a canny sense of the market. It presents us with a real moral challenge, as anyone who sits through the piece will be compelled to ask themselves what they would have done were they in Affleck’s position (and the events occurring on-screen were real).

MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 09/17/2010

Print Headline: REVIEW I’m Still Here

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