Phoenix flips the bird

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Casey Sanchez

Phoenix might have staged much of this film, but the anger and rage that ac­com­pany him in ev­ery frame seem noth­ing but real.

I’m Still Here, de­bauched celebrity break­down, rated R, The Screen, 2 chiles

Chas­ing mar­i­juana joints with co­caine is a prac­tice that goes by many names, but the phys­i­cal ef­fect is in­vari­ably the same: speech that is both ac­cel­er­ated and slurred. It is also the sort of dic­tion that ac­tor Joaquin Phoenix uses dur­ing much of the new doc­u­men­tary I’m Still Here — his nor­mally rich bari­tone ban­ter so scram­bled by cannabis and coca that his mono­logues are of­ten sub­ti­tled in or­der to be un­der­stood at all.

Filmed and di­rected by Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Af­fleck, the movie is pur­port­edly a year in Phoenix’s life as he em­barks on a ca­reer-shred­ding self-de­struc­tive and drug-ad­dled ner­vous break­down. In Fe­bru­ary 2009, the Phoenix who ap­peared on The Late Show With David Let­ter­man was a mum­bling, di­sheveled mess, an­nounc­ing that he was for­sak­ing act­ing for a hip-hop ca­reer. He re­fused to an­swer most of Let­ter­man’s ques­tions, prompt­ing Let­ter­man to quip, “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” The broad­cast seemed to catch Phoenix in the mid­dle of his deliri­ous free fall. Yet lit­tle that was writ­ten about the event in the press pre­pares the viewer for the rank crude­ness of this doc­u­men­tary of Phoenix’s by­gone year.

Sand­wiched be­tween grainy footage of Phoenix hav­ing sex with pros­ti­tutes and even more grainy footage of his as­sis­tants defe­cat­ing on him are long, painful takes of Phoenix’s lu­di­crous at­tempts to be­come a rap star — he be­lieves he can score a record deal with Sean “Diddy” Combs. If this is enough to com­pletely turn you off to the doc­u­men­tary, just file this one as an “onion” and stop read­ing now. For those who find en­ter­tain­ment and en­light­en­ment in celebrity self-lac­er­a­tion, by all means read on.

Much ink has been spilled over whether this doc­u­men­tary is cinéma vérité or a “pranku­men­tary” hoax, but a sin­gle view­ing of this film should si­lence that de­bate. For starters, it comes with writ­ing cred­its. Phoenix’s fa­ther is “played” by Af­fleck’s dad. And as any­one who watched 2005’s Walk the Line could tell, Phoenix is a highly tal­ented mu­si­cian who played and sang all of Johnny Cash’s ma­te­rial in the biopic. In this film, even Diddy seems to ques­tion Phoenix’s sin­cer­ity in cre­at­ing wretched hip-hop dreck, with lyrics that in­clude such mem­o­rable lines as “I keep it real / I never kneel / I’m the cho­sen one, bitch.”

This film is not a hoax so much as an ex­hausted mid­dle fin­ger to fame, for­tune, and rep­u­ta­tion. I’m Still Here is an act of bit­ing the hand that feeds you on par with Prince chang­ing his name to an un­pro­nounce­able glyph in the mid-1990s or The Rolling Stones’ de­ci­sion to record a num­ber of ob­scenely ti­tled songs in the late ’60s to free them­selves from an un­fair record con­tract.

Phoenix would cer­tainly not be the first wealthy, highly tal­ented ac­tor to break down in the face of fame. But he may have more le­git­i­mate rea­sons than most. It’s not the first time Phoenix has left act­ing, which he quit for a year af­ter the fa­tal 1993 over­dose of his older brother, ac­tor River Phoenix. As a child he was raised by hip­pie par­ents in­side the Chil­dren of God re­li­gious cult. The par­ents then aban­doned the sect and forced their chil­dren into act­ing and per­form­ing as a means of sup­port­ing the fam­ily. So when Phoenix com­plains in this movie that act­ing is noth­ing more than liv­ing his life as a pup­pet, it’s not just the malaise of a spoiled-brat ac­tor but the long howl of some­one who has had to make ends meet all his life by pre­tend­ing to be some­one else.

All that said, there is no rea­son why bow­ing out of the movie busi­ness should re­quire Phoenix to film him­self snort­ing co­caine, forc­ing his as­sis­tants to sub­mit to full-frontal nude shots, and hir­ing pros­ti­tutes on­line while com­ment­ing on the smells of their ori­fices. The le­gions of scat­o­log­i­cal acts com­mit­ted in this movie rank up there with those in Ra­belais’ Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gruel or, per­haps, Johnny Knoxville’s Jack­ass se­ries of gross-out stunts. Yet they are per­formed with a joy­less­ness that would be out of place in ei­ther of those works.

Yes, Phoenix might have staged much of this film, but the anger and rage that ac­com­pany him in ev­ery frame seem noth­ing but real. For bet­ter or worse, the film does a pre­cise job of cap­tur­ing Phoenix’s emo­tional and phys­i­cal de­vo­lu­tion from a be­wil­dered, un­kempt ac­tor who has cast off his per­sonal trainer to a coke-snort­ing would-be rapper who re­sem­bles a pot­bel­lied vam­pire be­fore fi­nally achiev­ing his apoth­e­o­sis as a pale hu­man-yak hy­brid who wears sun­glasses and dan­gles lit cig­a­rettes from his pal­lid lips all day long.

If there’s any hint of re­demp­tion in this film, it’s in the last five min­utes, when Phoenix re­treats to a lush Panama wa­ter­fall, the scene of a child­hood reverie. It may be tacked on and ut­terly made up, but af­ter watch­ing a hour and a half of this body-fluid-drenched mess, it’s al­most re­quired — a nec­es­sary emo­tional clo­sure that al­lows you to exit the theater with­out lead in your heart.

Joaquin Phoenix

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