"I'm Still Here," the documentary chronicling Joaquin Phoenix' retirement from acting to pursue a career as a rapper, made its world premiere this weekend at the Venice Film Festival. Sadly, the film's unveiling has done nothing to lay to rest speculation about its reality or intent.
The film, directed by Phoenix' brother-in-law Casey Affleck, follows the "former" actor for a year, starting with his 2008 "retirement." Phoenix of course had to stay in character, no-showing for the film's premiere, leaving Affleck to answer questions about whether the whole thing is an elaborate hoax or a true portrait of an artist in transition.
"Elliptically, I would say ... I sincerely don't want to influence people's interpretation," Affleck told the masses at the Venice Film Festival."I can tell you there is no hoax. It makes me think of 'Candid Camera' or something."
Notice how Affleck stops short of declaring the film non-fiction.
Phoenix walked away from a very successful and lucrative career as a film star in 2008, a move that could've been seen as a noble choice by a man who found himself in an industry that made him wildly unhappy. Instead he immediately outed himself as a performance artist by having his every move over the following year filmed. Whether sincere or not, it was an artless move that screamed "Look at me!"
To be fair though, the film - which is rife with scatology, vomiting, prostitutes and cocaine -- was well-received.
- "If it is a hoax, Phoenix is giving one of the greatest method performances of all time," wrote Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent.
- "Who cares, finally, whether this is a documentary or not? I'm Still Here paints a convincing portrait of a miserable, frustrated actor," said The Guardian UK's Xan Brooks.
- “The film is often funny and entertaining, but its scenes of full-front nudity, vomiting and other disturbing images will certainly turn away many viewers," according the The Wall Street Journal's Dean Napolitano.
- Time magazine's Richard Corliss called it a "long, fascinating display of artistic ego (or humorous hubris)."
The real genius of this project was the actor making himself virtually bullet-proof to criticism. Attack Phoenix for something, anything, going back to his retirement and all he has to do is maintain the deadpan he's crafted over the past two years, and when he's ready to give up the whole shenanigan, he can simply tell folks either a) "You just don't get it" or 2) "Dude, it was all part of the act."
There is one misstep that Phoenix has seemingly gotten a pass on, lifting the title of his film from "I'm Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust," a documentary for which the actor read diary entries. If comparing his life to the Holocaust is a joke, it's not funny. If it's meant to be sincere, it's disgusting. If it's an accident, it's beyond stupid.
Andy Kaufman made this genre a form of high art more than 30 years ago and Sacha Baron Cohen brought it back with a litany of characters over the previous decade. But those two geniuses managed to elide from one phase to another without the cry for attention that accompanied Phoenix' move into rap. The documentary may be great, but the spectacle has been tiresome.