DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Our film critic, David Edelstein, has been trying to figure out how to classify "I'm Still Here," Casey Affleck's new film about Joaquin Phoenix, his brother-in-law actor. Is it a documentary or a mockumentary?
Back in the fall of 2008, Phoenix announced he was giving up acting to become a hip-hop artist. "I'm Still Here" presents the next few months of his transformation and his first public performances as rapper JP.
Here's the review by critic DE.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: You probably recall Joaquin Phoenix's flabbergasting turn on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 2009. He came in looking like a Hasidic rabbi on Quaaludes; you could barely hear his mumbled one-word replies over the audience's titters. Letterman ended the interview with, Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight.
But some people suspected Joaquin was very much there, and that his stated intention to abandon acting to become a rapper was a hoax especially after they learned his change of life was the subject of a documentary by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck.
That documentary is out now. It's called "I'm Still Here," it's very entertaining, and let's say off the bat, that in it neither Phoenix nor Affleck admit a thing, although they do call it "A They Are Going to Kill Us Production."
The odds that Phoenix's persona is an act, I'd put at about 99.99 percent. But notice I said act, not hoax. Hoaxes have no basis in reality, whereas what Phoenix is doing feels more to me like performance art. I think under all the outlandish antics, there's an emotional truth.
Affleck begins with a montage of Phoenix's showbiz past, from street performances as a kid with his siblings to earlier talk-show appearances, to his Golden Globe for playing Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line." Then we meet Phoenix in the flesh, lurching around his house in the Hollywood Hills. Acting, he says, is like being a puppet. And when he's not before the camera, he tells Affleck, he's playing this character named Joaquin Phoenix.
What follows, in the ensuing weeks, is a combination rebirth and degeneration. He sucks on joints and snorts cocaine and no, I don't know if the drugs are real. He grows more and more pudgy. He humiliates members of his entourage. It's awful but it didn't make me squirm the way, say, Borat's antics do, or Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," when he endlessly reshuffles his small deck of neuroses. There's a glimmer of real madness in Phoenix's method acting.
He's always come off in interviews as unstable, alternately under and over defended. He abandoned showbiz once before. His brother, River, was a casualty of celebrity excess. And a few years ago, Joaquin checked into rehab. Phoenix would be a natural for one of those actorish existential breakdowns - the ones that turn on the old conundrum, where does my mask end and my true self begin?
Having said all that, I don't believe that "I'm Still Here" is a straight documentary. Bits with Ben Stiller courting Phoenix for a role, and Edward James Olmos giving New Age fatherly advice are like hilarious improvs. Even better are scenes with hip-hop mogul, Sean P. Diddy Combs, whom Phoenix wants to produce his raps.
At the recent Venice Film Festival, Affleck half admitted that Combs was aware of his role in the story to crush Phoenix's dreams of rap stardom - but how he does that is inspired.
(Soundbite of movie, "I'm Still Here")
Mr. SEAN P. DIDDY COMBS (Record producer, rapper, actor, and men's fashion designer): (as Himself) Do you have money to do this?
Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX (Actor): Like how much? I mean I have a little studio, do you know? Like in my, I have a garage, got Pro Tools set up.
Mr. COMBS: See, that's a (bleep) problem. When people try to do things, they dont do it the way they do it for their own industries. When you go make a movie you dont go - you got money to make a movie, right?
Mr. PHOENIX: What I want it to be is like a place with true aspiration.
Mr. COMBS: Can you do that in acting?
Mr. PHOENIX: Well, I do. That's the thing that as an actor youre shielded. It's a different, you know, I mean you know this, Christ...
Mr. COMBS: No, that's not a different thing.
Mr. PHOENIX: Well, maybe not but you can't see (unintelligible).
Mr. COMBS: Lights, right? Lights...
Mr. PHOENIX: Yes, how much?
Mr. COMBS: Craft services.
Mr. PHOENIX: Yes, tell me some more.
Mr. COMBS: Trailers.
Mr. PHOENIX: Yeah.
Mr. COMBS: Makeup, hair, DP.
Mr. PHOENIX: Good point.
Mr. COMBS: Gaffers.
Mr. PHOENIX: I get it.
Mr. COMBS: Same thing. Studio, engineer...
Mr. PHOENIX: I got it.
Mr. COMBS: Me.
Mr. PHOENIX: Well...
Mr. COMBS: Me.
Mr. PHOENIX: Yeah, you.
Mr. COMBS: The speakers.
Mr. PHOENIX: I get it.
Mr. COMBS: Do you have any money?
Mr. PHOENIX: Well, how much you need?
Mr. COMBS: How much you got?
(Soundbite of laughter)
EDELSTEIN: Regardless of how much money Phoenix has, his raps are appalling. Although, kudos to him for rhyming Joaquin and tear out my spleen.
"I'm Still Here" builds to that notorious Letterman appearance, which we watch and then watch Phoenix watch. He looks stricken. I'm guessing part of him is stricken, wondering - as exhibitionists often do, after the fact - if he has permanently wrecked his career. Small wonder. What will be the consequences of his self-immolation?
It's best to think of "I'm Still Here," not as a mockumentary in the style of Christopher Guest but an experiment something Phoenix and Affleck's friend, filmmaker Gus Van Sant might do. The film closes with a long, entrancing, Van Sant-like shot of Phoenix in Panama, walking upriver, in search of - what? Affleck clearly didn't know how to end the story. And it still hasn't ended. Let's see what happens after the movie opens.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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