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Toronto Review | The Mask of Celebrity: Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here”

Toronto Review | The Mask of Celebrity: Casey Affleck's "I'm Still Here"

The creative forces behind “I’m Still Here,” Casey Affleck’s alleged documentary about brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre attempt to quit acting and launch a hip hop career, seem eager to invite notoriety. Lawsuits have assailed the movie for the various hedonistic shenanigans the two actors engaged in during the shoot, including Phoenix’s giddy usage of prostitution and drugs. It’s like they’re daring you to pass judgment: The name of the production company run by Phoenix and Affleck is “They Are Going to Kill Us,” perhaps an expression of their joint disdain for public scrutiny.

Few scenes in “I’m Still Here” dispel the rumors that its story was carefully fabricated to delude the public. But the presence of trickery doesn’t ruin the spell, since the movie takes the form of a polemic, blaming today’s tabloid culture for Phoenix’s mounting professional discontent. (It’s possibly the first celebrity taunt in documentary form, unless you count Jamie Kennedy’s obnoxious anti-critic essay film “Heckler.”) When gliding along in observational mode, “I’m Still Here” has a uniquely fascinating outlook; at worst, it devolves into a gratingly simplistic blend of “Jackass” antics. In either mode, it evokes the discomfort of the searching artist at its center.

The bulk of the movie is less directed than assembled. In lieu of a specific origin to Phoenix’s retirement plans, Affleck assembles a story mostly composed of isolated moments. Shaky-cam footage catches the now-famously unshaven Phoenix babbling in anger about his need for deeper challenges, supposedly catching his behind-the-scenes outbursts with an uncomfortable degree of intimacy.The lack of technical polish mirrors Phoenix’s public charade. His words rendered as incomprehensible mumbling beneath a mangy red beard, Phoenix looks like he woke up on the wrong side of the garbage can. An appearance dubbed “Hasidic meth factory” by Natalie Portman at the 2010 Oscars, the unkempt Phoenix look became an angry brand unto itself.

Affleck begins with a contrast to happier times. Serene home video footage catches the young Phoenix in 1981 as he casually jumps off a waterfall. With a sudden cut to the following year, the setting changes to Westwood, where dozens of cameras close in on the showbiz prospects of his fresh-faced family, an image no less pristine than the Jackson 5. Alarming split screen techniques bring us into the late night talk show game, where Phoenix makes the rounds to publicize his performance in “Walk the Line.” The breathless montage culminates with his Golden Globe win, then dovetails into his creeping frustration. Wandering in the darkness, presumably alone with Affleck’s camera, the decrepit-looking Phoenix moans about “this ridiculous self-imposed prison” and drops half a dozen other histrionic complaints. “My artistic output this far has been fraudulent,” he proclaims. “Hate me or love me. Just don’t misunderstand me.”

If Phoenix seeks understanding, it would appear he wants people to relish his flaws. For all its observational strengths, “I’m Still Here” frequently suffers from an overwhelmingly puerile tone. The routine emphasis on Phoenix’s imprudence turns the movie’s scrappy feel into something closer to Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers” than, say, Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” another documentary with dubious claims to truth that nonetheless functions as potent artistic commentary. “I’m Still Here” gains momentum when Phoenix gets mad, but loses face when he simply acts gross.

Affleck makes almost too much of a concerted effort to acknowledge the rumors that they faked the whole thing, which strengthens the case that they did just that. A report in Entertainment Weekly cites an anonymous source, igniting paranoia in the Phoenix camp, but the main evidence of a scam comes from his behavior. Phoenix’s meltdown goes through screamingly obvious motions that, if scripted, cleverly engage with the worst clichés. Berating his assistant, an old friend poised to turn sour, Phoenix belts out, “What don’t you fucking understand?” — an apparent nod to Christian Bale’s infamous rant on the set of the fourth “Terminator” film.

Other scenes are delightfully odd but no less blatantly premeditated. A creative advisory session with the meditative actor Edward James Olmos, in which he lectures Phoenix about some gibberish involving cracks letting out the inner light out, has the blatant markings of a scripted scene. Still, the sight of Admiral Adama from “Battlestar Galactica” bopping his head to Phoenix’s beats makes for an enjoyably strange comic vision, if not a credible one.

Phoenix’s raps, meanwhile, sound so jokingly bad that no ostensibly talented performer could possibly ignore their lack of potential. Marred by simple-minded lyrics (“Got the blues like an old fool/I break all the rules”) and uneven beats, Phoenix’s musical work leaves Sean “P. Diddy” Combs” — recruited as Phoenix’s potential album producer — understandably beyond words. P. Diddy, of course, either agreed to play along or chose to do so after the fact. Either way, his hilariously dumbfounded expression bypasses his recent unhinged performance in “Get Him to the Greek.”

Watching his constant look of befuddlement as Phoenix insists on his career change, it becomes obvious that the scene could be scripted even if it’s not. In fact, none of the celebrities caught on camera when Phoenix acts out (Ben Stiller, for example, unsuccessfully attempts to recruit Phoenix for a supporting role in “Greenberg”) are self-serious enough to make for unlikely accomplices. The high profile cameos create a satire no greater than the usual Hollywood jabs on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Yet Affleck’s dismantling of the boundary between Phoenix’s private and personal lives implies a hidden agenda.

The movie’s topic is not quite unprecedented. In “Love the Beast,” Eric Bana’s 2009 documentary about his racing hobby, the actor trains a uncomplicated spotlight on the divisive nature of fame. The sober tone shows the basic conflict between personal needs and professional obligations. Since Bana does the work for us, the average viewer may find his story illuminating; Phoenix’s project, on the other hand, reeks of personal indulgence. Assuming his acts amount to an elaborate prank, his intentions as an actor seeking a fundamentally different form of performance contain a kernel of truth. Even so, Affleck samples a clip from TMZ posing an entirely valid question: “Do we care?”

We might. For its immediate audience, “I’m Still Here” fills in the gaps of a transmedia campaign for its narrative that began with Phoenix’s cringe-worthy appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” in February 2009. Doing his grumpy shtick on the press tour for James Gray’s “Two Lovers” (an unfair slight to that small gem of a romance), Phoenix gave dodgy two-word answers and eventually affixed his gum to the bottom of Letterman’s desk. The host’s reprimand establishes the nature of Phoenix’s revised public image: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”

The movie’s title, also the lyrics from one of Phoenix’s ill-received tracks, provides a belated answer to Letterman’s quip: He’s still there, but not camera-ready. The profound stillness of the finale, a return to the nature Phoenix encountered in his youth, enhances the fragility of his presence in every scene. For all intents and purposes, he’s a broken man looking for a new fix.

In addition to sharing a writing credit, Affleck and Phoenix presumably harbor some kind of collective ethos on the perils of stardom. They leave the overt prognostication to online pundits, including a YouTube commenter with the most viable conclusion. “Is it real?” he asks. “It really doesn’t matter.” Indeed, if Phoenix wanted to take his thespian strengths in a new direction, he unquestionably succeeded. A hostile or indifferent public can’t strip him of that achievement. If nothing else, the movie at least proves that there are two sides to every hoax.

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